Over the last few days RenewEconomy has reported on an emerging debacle in NSW regarding metering services for customers on the NSW Solar Bonus. Yet it may all turn out well and provide a wonderful illustration of just how ripe the power industry is to a disruptive shake up from players outside the less than competitive club of incumbents.
According to RenewEconomy a number of key players within the power industry think they’ll need to charge customers on the Solar Bonus feed-in tariff an extra $700 to replace their meter to one that allows them to self-consume their solar system’s generation before exporting the surplus.
Yes that’s right – $700 for a small electronic box capable of one rudimentary task – measuring and then communicating electricity flow. Meanwhile I can buy a laptop computer or a mobile phone for half that amount which is capable of interactive processing and communication of an almost infinite array of information and displaying it all to me in fabulous high definition colour. Did I mention they also take photos and videos?
It seems odd doesn’t it?
What leads me to really question what on earth is going on is that an upstart, internet-based small power retailer called Powershop is planning on offering these same Solar Bonus households the possibility of replacing their meter with a smart meter at no extra cost (with it switched over to net metering once the Solar Bonus scheme is closed). This will hopefully provide a useful kick up the backside to every other power retailer thinking of charging solar bonus customers $700 for a meter that will allow self-consumption of solar PV generation.
Interestingly, while RenewEconomy’s Giles Parkinson notes that retailers’ offer of low cost or “free” meters will probably come with a catch – requiring customers to sign a lock-in contract potentially with cancellation fees or other nasty surprises – Powershop will leave customers free to switch to another retailer if they don’t like what they get.
Now of course Powershop, as well as anyone else’s attempts to replace the roughly 150,000 solar bonus customer meters will probably not get very far if the government continues to protect the market of meter installation for a select, small number of specially qualified electricians.
But at least NSW consumers no longer have to put up with a protected market in metering services, which previously had been monopolised by electricity network businesses. The body that writes the regulatory rules –the AEMC – finally stood up to the network businesses late last year and told them to unbundle charges for metering from the rest of the poles and wires, while allowing power retailers to take their business elsewhere for metering services.
Unfortunately Victorians weren’t so lucky and every single one of us has already been charged over $700 for a smart meter with a few hundred dollars in more charges to come. And if you were lucky enough to live in the Powercor-Citipower area and installed a solar system (like me), they also charged you nearly $300 to switch on the meter to handle solar exports. This is even though this functionality was already built into every one of the smart meters we’d already been charged several hundred dollars for (they called it a “safety inspection” to the regulator while telling consumers it was a meter upgrade, when it was actually neither).
So if you’re a New South Welshman and you’ve heard about how bad smart meters were for Victorians – don’t blame smart meters. Smart meters are not the problem, it’s the network monopoly over these meters that was so problematic. Indeed Queensland solar system owners might also rightfully wonder why they too are being charged a substantial premium by Energex for metering when the AEMC observed that smart meters (which can readily be adapted to measure solar exports) don’t cost much more than a conventional dumb meter.
Hopefully we’ll finally start to see competition in the power market that aids rather than hinders the adoption of new technology. Just be careful that some offers of “free” meters may come with a nasty catch.
Tristan Edis is Director – Analysis and Advisory with Green Energy Markets. However the views expressed in this article are entirely his own and not those of his employer.