What will Smart Metering look like in the UK?

This week, the UK government published their response to the consultation that ran over the summer. Basically, they asked how smart metering should be implemented in the UK, offered some proposals, and invited anyone to tell them what they think.

In case I hadn’t already convinced people that I was a geek, I read through the Government response paper. It basically reiterates the proposals that were outlined before the summer, summarises the responses that they received, and states the decisions that they have reached as a result.

Is it really very geeky that I found this interesting?

I wanted to highlight a few bits in particular…

… mandate a roll out of electricity and gas smart meters to all homes in Great Britain with the aim of completing the roll out by the end 2020 …

In case you missed all the press about this in the past week, the plan is still that we’re all getting smart meters, and it’ll happen in the next ten years.

… Government has concluded that the Central Communications Model, under which energy suppliers will be responsible for purchasing and installing meters, and communications are co-ordinated centrally, offers the best model for Britain’s smart meter roll out …

I first heard about this approach before the summer, when the consultation began. As I understand it, this places the emphasis on the private sector – on the utility companies – to handle the introduction of Smart Metering, rather than making it a big central Government IT project.

I had originally assumed that standards would be defined that any electricity meter in the UK would have to meet, enabling them to report data to a single, central database. This database could be managed by a National Grid-type organisation. Access could then be granted to energy companies for their customers for purposes such as billing.

But this is not going to be the case… and with the sort of press that large UK Government IT projects get, perhaps you can’t blame them.

That said, they haven’t devolved it entirely to the private sector – the “Central Communications Model” appears to be a sort of compromise where the Government makes sure the network connectivity needed for Smart Metering is put in place, leaving the meters themselves, and the data that goes across that network, to the utility companies.

How far this compromise approach will go in mandating standards isn’t clear…

… considerable amount of further design work is now needed to establish how a Central Communications Model should best be delivered … will need to cover a wide range of issues including … technical issues …

This is about as close as they appear to come to implying that there will be standards. Ultimately, from the response document as it currently stands, interoperability between different smart metering schemes and/or utility companies doesn’t appear to be a goal.

… Government … believes that strong positive engagement among local communities will be particularly powerful in generating the necessary awareness, enthusiasm and take up …

This sounded pretty good on first read, although the sort of examples cited to achieve this are “managing the roll out, so that as many people as possible in local communities receive their new meters at the same time”. Which seems kinda limited.

Considering the negative press that Smart Metering has received over the past few days, it’ll need more than careful logistics to generate enthusiasm!

… Government’s position remains that a standalone display should be provided with the smart meter … provision of a display is important to securing the consumer benefits of smart metering, delivering real time information to consumers on their energy consumption in a readily accessible form …

This is where I start to really disagree with the government position. There appears to be a reliance on the fact that if you give a consumer a single, stand-alone display with a couple of simple graphs on it, then their energy usage behaviour will be transformed.

This appears to be contrary to the conclusions drawn by the EDRP trials. It’s also contrary to what I would want as a consumer.

… recognises that there are … alternative means of information provision [to stand-alone smart meter displays], there is much less evidence on their effectiveness … they may often be less effective, especially where they require positive action by the consumer to access information … where smart meter data has been available online, the usage rate has been low at 2 to 4 per cent of customers …

It’s just frustrating… if data access is limited to only being on a simple in-home display, the consumer potential for smart meters is greatly reduced.

I don’t want to see my energy usage only on a little display under the stairs. I want to be able to check it online while I’m at work. I want to be able to check it on my phone. I want to be able to get it by email. I want to be able to check it from my television.

Basically, I want to see this stuff when and where I want it. The idea that they can mandate the best way for me to consume information – particularly when it is personal data – just feels backwards.

Look at CurrentCost and all the cool projects and hacks that have grown up around it. This innovation came from the ability to get at the data and do stuff with it.

Why are they so fixed on this being about a) making data available or b) providing a fixed display? Why not both? Why can’t the requirement be for data to be available, and an in-home display to be made available to show it?

… provision of smart meters … will be an important part of the supply companies’ relationship with their customers … balance between flexibility for suppliers to innovate, which the Government recognises will be important, and common minimum requirements …

Ultimately, it looks like energy companies will not be mandated to make smart metering data available. Making the data available through alternative means will be left to commercial and consumer pressures on the private sector to motivate them.

The idea of encouraging Smart Metering schemes as a competitive benefit between utility companies is, in itself, interesting. It could be good for innovation. Will we see energy companies saying “Come with us, because our smart meters can do X!”?

The flipside, I guess, is that this could lead to fragmentation in standards and approaches.

… next step will be to develop the [smart meter display] requirements … we will consider further what … requirements should apply in cases where it is clear that the individual consumer does not wish to have a free-standing display … important that this does not detract from the general premise that a free standing display should be provided …

This was interesting – it was the first time that I’ve heard suggestion that people will be able to say “no, thanks”.

… This work will include the minimum common information which should be provided to all consumers …

This sounds like a good idea.

… the roll-out of smart metering in Great Britain will represent the largest and most complex such deployment anywhere in the world …

I hadn’t realised that before the press coverage this week… not sure why, but I was surprised by this.

The actual requirements for UK smart metering are outlined in the document:

(electricity & gas) Remote provision of accurate reads/information for defined time periods – delivery of information to customers …

I guess this is a big incentive for the utility companies. It removes the need for meter readers, and gives them accurate information about their business. Hard to argue with the need for this.

(electricity & gas) Two way communications to the meter system – communications between the meter and energy supplier or other designated market organisation – upload and download data through a link to the wider area network …

(electricity & gas) Providing “real time” information to an in-home display …

The most obvious consumer-focused requirement… but still the big focus is on this in-home display, rather than a more general requirement of making the information available to the consumer.

(electricity & gas) Home area network based on open standards and protocols – enable other devices to link to the meter system …

This is very positive – and hasn’t had enough positive attention.

I mean, I would have rather that they went further and said that they would require Smart Metering schemes to provide a standard, non-proprietary API, using an open communications protocol and common standards, enabling the widest variety of displays to be supported.

But this is still better than nothing, right?

(electricity & gas) Support for a range of time of use tariffs – multiple registers within the meter for billing purposes …

There isn’t a mention of real-time tariffs, but it doesn’t say anything to rule them out.

I guess this will happen when the utility companies are ready for it. My guess is that we will have to reach the point where our bills more closely reflect the real-time cost of the generation of the energy we use, in real-time – and smart meters will be key to making this possible.

(electricity) Load management capability to deliver demand side management – ability to remotely control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home

This has led to a lot of alarmist reporting… oh no – the utility company want to control our appliances! The comments page for The Register’s Gov confirms plans for Sky box in charge of your house article was enough to make me want to bang my head against my desk.

It’s a shame, because ultimately smart metering that enables smarter appliances, and brings real value (environmental and economic) to home automation is a good thing.

But instead of debating that, we’ve seen knee-jerk debates about straw man scenarios such as whether it’d be a good thing for evil energy companies to turn off critical life-support type equipment without warning.

(electricity) Exported electricity measurement – Measure net export … Capacity to communicate with a measurement device within a microgenerator – receive, store, communicate total generation for billing

This was very positive. There really isn’t enough of an incentive today for microgeneration. Hopefully that will change.

… rules and safeguards will be required to ensure appropriate access to and protection of this data … functionality requirements around security will be developed as part of the detailed functional specification …

Or in other words, “yes, we know security is important – we’ll get to that” 🙂

… near-instantaneous switching [between supplier companies] is not readily compatible with existing market and settlement arrangements … could also raise difficulties for billing systems and procedures …

This seems to rule out the proposed model where you could automatically switch between – for example – a small wind-farm company while their supply is cheap and plentiful, and switch back to a more traditional “Big Six” supplier when it isn’t, in response to demand throughout the day.

Essentially, it seems that you choose your supplier and you stick with them.

A shame… and again, seems to inhibit potential innovations.

… smart metering will enable the change of supplier process to be significantly faster than today …

Really?

If they really leave the smart meters themselves to the utility companies, without defining standards… and if smart meter schemes between suppliers are not compatible, surely this will make switching supplier slower and more onerous?

In fact, if the utility companies are the ones who will initially be picking up the cost of introducing smart metering, it seems entirely likely that we’ll see a mobile phone type model emerge, where consumers will end up having to sign long-term contracts in return for getting a free or subsidised meter.

If energy company A have to pay hundreds of pounds to fit a smart meter in my house, and politically can’t get away with charging me hundreds of pounds for it… they’re hardly likely to want to let me leave for energy company B in a month’s time, are they?

This is where a central approach, with smart meters all reporting data in the same way to the same place, regardless of supplier, might have helped. You could switch supplier as often as you liked, without needing to change your meter. Perhaps then we might’ve had the smart grid where you could switch suppliers dynamically and automatically during the day.

But we’re going to be getting smart meters from a particular utility company, at their expense. Fast and easy switching seems unlikely.

… overall we estimate that by 2020 on the basis of 2-3% energy savings, the average dual fuel customer will benefit by £28 per annum …

And, of course, there was the disappointing line that made the headlines. Is that really all? I know I’m not a typical consumer, but that still sounded low.

You can download the response documents for yourself from decc.gov.uk. If you’re interested in smart metering, or want to get behind some of the FUD in the mainstream press about this, I’d say that it’s worth a read.

I should add that my personal interest is in smart meters for the consumer market… there is more detail about the commercial sector in the response paper, but I’ve ignored that here.

Finally, I should add a (hopefully unnecessary!) disclaimer. In this post, I’ve written what I think. Please don’t assume that this is a description of IBM’s position. A lot of very smart people spent a long time preparing IBM’s response to the consultation, so it’d be a shame for anyone to confuse that detailed and considered opinion with my more inane ramblings. If you want to know what IBM thinks about the UK Smart Metering proposals, IBM’s official response is a better place to look than my blog.

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8 Responses to “What will Smart Metering look like in the UK?”

  1. Steve says:

    Have you seen The Registers less than optimistic write up?

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/03/smart_meters_confirmed/

    “Apart from being able to turn a house off and on remotely, however, the unspecified people who control the “meters” from afar will also have other capabilities. Specifically, the boxes will have “load management capability to deliver demand side management – ability to remotely control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home”.”

    That is the bit that worries me the most, I’m not sure I agree with electricity companies having remote “instant off” capabilities, or the ability to “load manage” my supply and have them decide I can’t have the amount of power I want right now.

  2. dale says:

    I don’t think it’s as bad as The Register (and others) are making it sound…

    For example,

    not sure I agree with electricity companies having remote “instant off” capabilities

    This wouldn’t be something done on a whim… (other than for situations such as moving house where you ask them to do this) they’re talking about this being the last resort after the process to get you to pay your bills has been exhausted, and only do-able with a court order.

    It wont be an administrator at the electricity company free to turn you on and off whenever they feel like it.

  3. Steve says:

    I’m glad you have more faith in the goodness of electricity companies than I do! (and ops, you had already liked the El Reg, missed that first time!)

    I’m not especially worried in my current situation, but I do worry for those people close to the breadline who might suffer as a result of it being easier for the electricity board to terminate their supply (at the moment it isn’t that easy to switch someone off, which in a lot of ways is a good thing).

    I would also like clarification on the load management facilities and in what situation they will be used, and what real effect that will have on consumers.

    The time based tariffs is also interesting, but they had better provide a serious quantity of end user data and decent comparison tools, it’s a complete nightmare as it is trying to compare electricity tariffs. I hate to think how hard it would be to find the best deal when you have to compare 2 companies offering different tariffs over different time sectors in the day!

  4. dale says:

    I don’t think it’s so much about faith in the goodness of electricity companies… although I must admit that my geeky first instinct in approaching technology is to see the ways that it can make our life better. 🙂

  5. Hi Dale,
    I was working with Natural Systems Ltd in NZ on some CurrentCost ideas.
    Would be interested in your thoughts on presenting energy use through corporate IP Telephones – such as the Nortel NYTS03.
    Let me know what you think?
    Cheers, Malcolm

  6. dale says:

    It’s an interesting idea… I’ve not played with those before. Sounds like it should be do-able, though

  7. Matthew Smiths says:

    Who looks in their utility cupboard every day to see the gas meter and understands how much they have spent? http://www.power-technology.com/videos/68821469001.html
    I think Smart Meters are a good idea and can help people. It will monitor electricity consumption and help to understanding where to save money and reducing carbon emissions. Simple as that! Why it is not worth spending money?