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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Is Smart Metering a Dumb Choice for Consumers? Mark Patrick

Most of us like to know where our money goes and exactly how it is being spent. Others find it more convenient (less troublesome?) to avow that there’s no point in challenging the big service providers and utilities, that the price being charged for services such as gas and electricity is fair – and anyway, it takes dedication and considerable effort to find out if you can get the same thing cheaper elsewhere. If you do embark on the quest, often you find that you can’t make a straight comparison: there are always differences of approach and ways in which charges are applied, so that ultimately you find yourself trying to compare apples with pears. Anyone who’s ever tried changing their car insurance provider will be familiar with that scenario.

On the face of it, it certainly makes sense to add intelligence to essential services such as the provision of electricity, gas and water. There is pressure on us all to do our bit to combat global warming by reducing our consumption of fossil fuel-based services. One strand of policy being adhered to by many governments – including the UK’s – is the insistence that utility companies replace their customers’ old analogue meters with smart (digital) ones. The UK would like to have smart meters installed in all homes by 2020, allowing consumers’ consumption of gas, electricity and water to be measured digitally and communicated back to the utility electronically.

This is more than simple automated meter reading, which requires a man in a van to come out and download the information recorded on each household’s analogue meter. That’s overlaying a 20th Century constraint on 21st Century technology and is certainly not a smart move, even if the information can now be ‘read’ wirelessly by holding a receiver close to the meter, instead of recorded long hand. A truly smart meter is one that provides real time (or near real time) usage monitoring to the utility. Where power is concerned, it can also provide information about service quality or even supply failure.

In its current form, smart metering holds out little benefit to the consumer – apart, perhaps, from putting an end to the receipt of estimated bills. This is because consumer end devices in the shape of energy monitors are still not intelligent enough to provide useful information to us. If you have a ‘smart’ meter, all it demonstrates is that, if you turn a light switch or appliance on or off, the total power draw, water flow or gas usage increases or decreases accordingly. That’s hardly rocket science.

For now it’s solely down to individuals’ conscience – do you really need that extra cup of tea when you get in from work on a cold dark evening? Every kettle that’s turned on means the power station has to work that little bit harder. Multiplied up, it could even produce the surge in demand that results in the lights going out, as the UK tiptoes along the apparently all-too-perilously fine line between being able to generate sufficient power or not.

Reliance on consumers’ ‘green’ consciences – and desire to see their bills being lower – certainly forms a major part of governments’ and energy companies’ thinking. The UK government estimates that customers’ ability to ‘manage’ their consumption of essential services could net them a 2-3% saving in terms of energy consumption. Given its success in trying to persuade people to switch to cheaper tariffs, even that estimate may well be optimistic. One irony is that meters are not yet able to cope with a switch between suppliers.

The meters will start to come into their own when they are interfaced to the smart grids that are being built by power companies. Nominally, smart grids hold out the promise of load balancing (in terms of flow optimization between supply and demand), reducing energy wastage, improving grid reliability and of integrating renewable energies. They will also allow energy companies to charge customers more efficiently and effectively, using Time of Use Tariffs, lowering costs for customers if they use their energy at non-peak times. Once again, the onus is on the consumers to change their habits. The utility can lead with incentives, but the consumer has to ‘buy in’ to the new strategy.

There are those who find the concept of smart meters deeply disturbing, either because they believe that the consumer units emit worryingly high levels of radiation and/or because they believe that the intimate knowledge utilities will gain about consumers’ energy usage habits is highly intrusive. They may be further concerned to find that their energy usage could be controlled, for instance by their intelligent fridges or freezers switching off automatically for periods during the day when they detect inactivity – when their owners are out at work for example. Power savings for the grid, penny savings for the consumer, but rather Big Brotherish…

Smart meters, once implemented and interfacing to intelligent technology such as Smart Grids, are of obvious benefit to the utilities, but have limited appeal for the consumer. So how do we square this circle? What can be done to improve this situation? How can the consumer derive benefit from the power of the technology apart from the most obvious salving of their conscience by switching off unnecessary lights? The technology will have most success if the consumer stands to benefit as well as the utility. Obviously the greatest area from which the consumer will derive benefit is from the software interface and how the software is written.

But could there also be a hardware ‘fix’? What can the engineer do to improve the consumer’s lot? A reliable way of storing excess power would be of inestimable value to utilities and consumers alike. That’s the one part of the overall solution that’s still lacking. So, engineers – get your thinking caps on. If you were to be the one to come up with the solution for storing excess power, you would most certainly be able to live happily ever after!

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Part of Mouser's EMEA team in Europe, Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark spent 8 years at Texas Instruments in Applications Support and Technical Sales roles and holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.

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