Maybe there is no box.
What's needed in Smart Metering, for most people, is simple metering information. How it gets there is irrelevant. Just as we can operate computers without knowing what goes on in them, one doesn't need the recipe for a kebab. And most people don't want to know anyway. They just want a kebab.
Present meters, and the technology is essentially the same from 1888, are dumb meters. They measure, via varying methods the kWhs an energy consumer uses. What they don't measure is when energy is used. Combine amount, multiply by price and set up by time period. That's all most people need.
The need is to transmit the digitized pulse from the meter to a location where it can be used. That simple. We don't need a gadget to do that – we need a widget.
Which is a long way of saying that the stress on Smart Meters, as opposed to Smart Measurement, is getting confused. People want to manufacture a box. And naturally enough, people want sell boxes. And the box can be used, among other things, to offer a service: energy measurement and after we get used to that after a short while, dynamic pricing according to Time Of Use.
But is replacing the entire meter infrastructure with a new smart network of them the quickest or easiest solution? It takes time. The quickest smart meter roll-out measured by number of meters was the Italian experience which took four to five years at 5 million meters per year. Slower time scales, of about 750,000 per year are being achieved in Ontario by next year or Ireland by 2012.
We've pointed out here from day one the glacial changes proposed for UK Smart Metering. Ten years is the most optimistic plan BERR or Ofgem could come up with. That time scale may actually be speeded up – it's now clear that other countries will beat us by five years or more, which contradicts the old energy mantra of the UK leading the world in energy innovation via the increasingly dubious vector of competitive markets alone. The Department of Energy and Climate Change as BERR now is, can be anticipated to offer something quite different from a few months ago. The world has changed very quickly even since the original consultations from BERR and Ofgem of last autumn. Firstly, markets are now proven to be not all they were cracked up to be. They are in fact proven to be cracked, and utilities can't write the energy agenda for light touch regulation ( i.e. nothing changes), in an age of nationalised banks. Secondly, at least in the US, the crisis is seen as an opportunity not to be wasted. One important strand is to use smart metering to lower use, carbon and costs while delivering employment, investment and energy independence.
So, we may be surprised, if the delay in the current consultation actually delivers something sooner rather than later, especially for SME customers. Our preferred option is for the current SM technology to be rolled out to SME customers first. The logic here is that they use more and savings of both money and carbon show up sooner. That was the logic for the rollout of SM to larger energy users from April 2009, already somewhat problematic. What if the government sticks to it original plan to lump 400,000 SME energy meters in with 46 million domestic ones? Really dumb move, but one can never underestimate the capability of Ofgem to do something either counter-intuitive or downright stupid on solely dogmatic grounds.
So we may be in a situation where by 2012, less than 20% of people have access to the energy information that is the first step towards saving it.
Smart Metering isn't only about information, and SM has a key requirement of bi-directionality that can't be delivered through usage information alone. The original driver in Italy was load management, in that ENEL could shed load through voltage reductions or shutting down individual appliances such as AC or of course cutting the entire load off in peak periods. But the view was better to dim the lights or switch off AC first to cut peak loads. Cutting the peak is critical. The UK is no different from anyone else in that peak power is generated by power plants that often are literally used only for hours, not days or weeks over the course of a year. But a power plant costs the same to construct and keep on line as one used to provide baseload, apart from the cost of fuel itself. The bi-directional requirement is also critical in California and other US markets where air conditioning is widespread: A utility can turn down the thermostat and literally save the cost of a nuclear power station. The actual disruption, despite what the grumpy old men will say, is negligible and cost effective.
Another key advantage of bi-direction is to allow smaller generators to put power into the grid as well as take it out. But is that energy fantasy actually going to be delivered? It's a chicken and egg situation in that distributed generation wont' be around without a Smart Grid. But if Ofgem wants, we can deal with a ten year roll-out for that.
Bi-directional SM is nice to have. We can wait ten years for that if Ofgem is that desperate to keep National Grid sweet. But Automated Meter Reading is a must have and the sooner the better. What we need is the information already there in every meter simply delivered. That is now conceivable and quite soon it will be deliverable.
The nextgen telecoms network, whether it's called 4G, LTE (Long Term Evolution) or ubiquity, is coming to airwaves near you within 18 months to four years to create in the domestic space an always on, high speed and completely robust Home Area Network. Reliablity as an issue will be as dead as a discussion over Y2K. Although the speeds for simple bursts of data will need minimal speeds, network speeds will allow instantaneous HD movie downloads for example. The applications will be endless, but the one that we want, Smart Metering or to be exact Automated Metering, will be just one simple, easily achieved icon on the desktop. A widget on the (Computer/TV/Handheld/Hybrid) screen delivering information from the gadget. Click here for weather. Click here to lock the door.Click here to watch a movie. Click there to play a game, click that to put on the washing machine (at a low cost time period). Click this go to the bank.Click the widget to see everything you ever wanted to know, and probably much more than many might care for, about real-time energy use and costs coming directly from the meter or via the utility billing engine. The gadget can, in most cases, be the Edisonian meters of today or the digital bi-directional smart meters of a few years from now. That can, and we're sure will, be delivered far sooner than the box itself. And it could well be that the energy may still be shipped by National Grid and supplied from international generators and gas shippers, but be billed at the customer face by Google or Sky or Virgin Media.
It's what outside the box that we need. And that includes thinking.