Will smart meters follow poles and wires as new white elephant? | RenewEconomy

Will smart meters follow poles and wires as new white elephant?

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The utility industry is making a big push for smart meters to be rolled out across the country, partly because it hopes this will enable them to lock in customers, and help introduce flexible tariffs. But smart innovators are literally blowing Raspberries at these best laid plans, with new technologies that allow consumers to control their home systems.

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It seems like the Australian electricity industry is about to go crazy over smart meters. So far, only the Victorian have it in any great numbers, but the big retailers are making a big push for smart meters to be installed across the country.

It’s a rollout that will likely cost billions of dollars. And some say it is a risky investment because the like he massive investment in poles and wires that has preceded it, and pushed up consumer prices, it could be made quickly redundant by competing technologies.

The utilities – network providers and retailers – are keen for smart meters, with the industry lobby group ESAA being particularly supportive? Why would that be? For some, it is about locking in customers in an industry that is facing increasing competition from new technologies and service providers that are finding ways around, and through, decades-old business models.

Smart meters have been hailed as one of the paths to the new energy economy – providing a critical link in the new smart grids” that will enable electricity to flow in different directions, and match and pair supply and demand, allow for new tariffs, and to co-ordinate the use of efficient appliances.

The problem is, however, that they are expensive. And can be even more so.

The Victoria rollout has been costly to network operators such as SP Ausnet. The cost of installation has more than doubled to $686 million (they used different technology than the others), and they are trying to get permission to pass on these costs to consume. Laughably, one third of their smart meters cannot be read remotely.

Worse, the smart meters are already being undercut by new technology which comes at a fraction of the cost, and does not need the utility company – be it a retailer or a network provider – to install it.

Ironically, this move is being driven by the tariff structures that are encouraging customers to consume as much of the output of their rooftop solar systems as they can. The more they try to consume, the more they find they can.

When you are being asked to pay 53c/kWh to consumer electricity from the grid in the afternoon, and getting paid between 2c and 8c/kWh for exports, it’s a bit of a no brainer to put the electricity in a box and store it for use at night – or direct it to other gadgets and appliances through the day.

And this is one way of how they are doing it.

raspTake this little gadget, for instance.

It is an example of the simple electronic devices that can be bought for next to nothing, and which can communicate with an inverter, and other appliances, and can act as a glorified time switch. In other words, it can do much of what a smart meter can do, without locking in consumers to the commercial infrastructure of the utilities.

The incumbents are aghast, and is yet another example of how it will be software and gadgets that deliver the final blow to inflexible business models already weakened by the prospect of rooftop solar and battery storage.

That means it can be used to drive a pool pump, air conditioning or a second fridge. It can do that with “rogue” systems that are not tied to the grid, or it can time them to be used when a connected system is producing electricity.

It can switch off when tariffs from the grid get too high – so rather than running an air conditioning systems at peak time it will turn them on at other times.

The USB ports allow them to talk to the air-conditioning without a centralized control. And it can talk to the solar system. It knows how much sun it is getting, it is aware of the tariffs on offer for imports and exports. I can time energy intensive appliances such as pool pumps to suit

What’s more, through the cloud, it can even find out predictions for sunshine and tariffs and demand management.

And of this from a $50 piece of equipment that can be installed by an electrician and has nothing to do with network operators, retailers or even regulators and policy makers. That is the challenge for the incumbents right now, and why they might be risking another few hundred million investing in smart meters which have already been made redundant by rapidly evolving technology.

“The smart meter boat has sailed – we thought it was going to be the centre of our customer universe,” noted one utility executive. Not any more.

(Note: The original article was lost, as were the comments. This is the best way we could retrieve them).


“I think the overall implications for energy availability and our lifestyles is sufficiently consequential to give more consideration.”

You know that is true. We are so lucky that a lot of smart people are doing just that.

10:53 p.m., Thursday Oct. 2


well lets’ get the global phone manufacture’s to put up a billions dollars and organize a international competition to see if it is possible to do as you suggest. make a sustainable phone. In regards to re localizing manufacturing it is amazing the potential of 3D printing powered by renewable energy with storage. But this is a very very different model of living than the one we have now and this is my primary point, the potential is there we are smart enough but we need to get our skates on to re imagine a world where economic growth is not the central organizing principle of all life on this planet.

11:54 p.m., Monday Sept. 22

Joel Harrison

Very interesting article Giles. Smart homes would seem to only be the beginning of how technology is changing energy use worldwide.

1:03 a.m., Tuesday Aug. 12

Albert Sjoberg

Sure the dit route is not an option for everyone, just as many folk prefer to visit the supermarket to get their tomatoes. What this does is create some wonderful business opportunities. 🙂

1:03 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Agreed. The article may have created high expectations of DIY kit.

1:11 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Harley Mackenzie

As a developer of products using both the Arduino and Raspberry PI devices and having worked in the energy industry for over 20 years, the frustrating part of the Victorian smart meter rollout was that there is no provision for devices to communicate to the meters using the embedded Zigbee wireless or any other technique. I understand the security concerns but it would certainly be achievable. You have the ridiculous situation of people using Arduino devices hooked up to induction sensors on the switch board because there is no other way of getting the instantaneous power consumption.

So there is this huge investment for the smart meters, paid for by the consumer and the only beneficiaries are the retailers and distributors as they now have detailed data, the flexibility to tailor tariffs (when the government gives them permission to do that) and eliminating the human meter readers in urban environments.

1:13 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Albert Sjoberg

It is sad that sometimes the easiest way to see what is going on is to put an optical sensor over the pulse counting LED.
I do understand that the utilities jealously guard their secrets, but they are expediting their own demise by not adapting to the zeitgeist.

I make use of a combination of induction sensor and communicating with the inverter to build up a picture of what is happening. Simply easier to walk around the wall than to keep bashing my head against it.

1:21 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


The action will be in smart battery controllers or community micro-grid controllers.

General grid = Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead.

1:40 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


I’m a retired software designer with lots of commercial experience using embedded micro-controllers of this sort, and I agree that the article oversimplifies both the costs and the intellectual requirements for truly “rolling your own”. The abstract requirements may seem simple, but the complexity lies in dealing with contingencies like power failures and mice chewing on wires.

However, that being said, there are tons of small businesses creating products based on this sort of hardware that will not be hugely expensive, and will be largely plug and play.

So, the folks pushing smart meters as a way for power companies to get a lock on customer data are right to be afraid of this sort of cheap technology, and that goes ten-fold for people stupid enough to sell meters that cannot even be read remotely. That’s not just “laughable”; it’s a veritable three-ring circus of stupidity.

Also, parents might want to consider introducing their junior high age children to this stuff as a potentially lucrative hobby.

One of my own sons started this way about fifteen years ago, at age nine. He is now finishing his Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and he paid for his own school by working part-time, at good pay, doing software testing in a commercial lab. About $20K per year, for six years now. That experience alone is enough to make him a credible candidate for a $60K job in software quality assurance. Never mind the Master’s in engineering.

The Arduino is a particular good platform for novices, the hardware costs a pittance, and there are lots of very good, entirely free, introductory tutorials all over the Web. Just Google “arduino tutorial”, and you will be swamped with possibil ities.

Also, the Lego Mindstorm kits are an equally good way to start, although at somewhat higher cost – about $200 for the basic kit, if I recall correctly.

2:02 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Like all people with teenagers in the house I had a big power bill problem. I cut the bill by 55 %. I paid 600 dollars into my 16 year old son’s bank account. The thing was he had to pay the electricity bill and could keep the change. He came up with a lot of ideas and a family meeting set him up to make a good 325 dollar profit.
The innovation and waste management was amazing.

2:20 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


This article is not a dream. This is where we are headed.

2:24 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


You can talk to the meter via zigbee if your distributor is United or Jemena using a smart energy certified device. Not fully DIY, but a few decent ethernet/USB interfaces out there.

2:39 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Question for the technical people here. If we pay an amount for energy adjusted for a frequency range and predetermined response, we could manage load side switching in a dispersed energy market with no communication required. For example each house has a frequency meter. If you want you can pay maximum and have no adjustment for frequency management. If you accept that response is made when frequency varies 1% from 50 hz then you pay less. There could be various settings and associated fee variation.
Later on this frequency response could be the basis of the integration of battery storage and energy use as we go 100% renewable.
I believe that the switching of loads dispersed throughout the grid in this way and effective within the first half cycle, or 5 mi lli seco nds of the frequency excursion, will cause a much faster response and greater impact on power swings.
This approach enables the grid to function as if there are different frequencies in different locations
on the grid rather then having one central response where we ram energy onto the grid with no customer choice about the need.
Only when responding at these small scale and milli second time frames is this possible.

2:42 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


I think Home Kit will re-centralise away from Arduino and DIY. Then you just need Ble to aggregate sensors and switches like wireless OBD did for car ECUs. Then you’re paying $20 per device to control and probably $50 for complex data inputs. Or you could go full old school and use wires.

2:39 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


My last power bill worked out at a massive $3.94 per day before solar credits. (14 kWh/day.) Smart meters may make sense for large business consumers but it seems most unlikely they will reduce bills for normal households. I am certainly not going to sit watching my meter to save a few cents per day. It might help to have a few of my power points changed to controlled power but all this needs is some simple wiring changes to my switchbox.

3:12 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Mark Roest

Remember when you were a teenager, or if you were precocious, a pre-teen. “You are there!” being told that you can build something worth $500 in 4 to 10 hours? “Wild horses couldn’t drag me awayyyy!” Being able to do something of value to (and a challenge for) adults is the ultimate motivator for the young. Now multiply that by at least half of the world’s population, some of them solving one problem, others solving another, ad infinitem. It’s a truly gorgeous picture!

In other words, you just laid out a dream come true, not a nightmare, for the young and the restles s, driven to find a mate and have their own family.

3:15 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


No sweat. Your basic thesis is correct. This sort of low-cost hardware will definitely blow yet another hole in the business models of the incumbent power industry. I just did not want non-technical readers to be oversold on DIY, or to miss the real opportunity to buy modestly-priced, off-the-shelf products.

Also, doing hobby-level demonstration projects is actually within the reach of a bright twelve year-old (provided they are not connecting things directly to the house electrical mains). It is the development of a robust, maintenance-free system that r emains t he province of professional developers.

3:18 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Actually, I rather like the idea of sensing current independently of the power company’s meter. That way I would have my own way to check on the accuracy of their equipment.

Of course, you want to be careful sticking your fingers into the power panel, so shutting off the main breaker is mandatory, but, other than that, why not?

3:30 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Craig Allen

As far as I can tell, the only function of the so called smart meter that is installed at my house in Melbourne is to track energy used/exported so the electricity company can get my bill right. There is nothing else it does. The distributor – Citypower – will not even give me the data. I’ve been told that if I want that – so I can understand and better manage my appliances and solar system – then I need to install an another independent and quite expensive system (which they don’t provide) that clamps onto the wires in my fuse box. But to do that I’ll need to replace the fusebox, which in itself is quite an expensive thing to do. Where is the ‘smart’ in this $400 box? With the analog meter at least I could go and look at it to see how much energy I was using at any point in t ime.

3:43 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Askgerbil Now

Whether DIY or commercial products, low-cost technology to monitor and manage energy use just keeps getting better and cheaper.

The Arduino Uno is good for prototyping. The commercial version of energy monitors and controllers can use an Arduino Nano that costs $4 to $5 on eBay.

Allegro ACS712 current sensor modules now cost under $2.
http://youtu.be/7XIXOHnmOSo )

Smart meters are a victim of rapid technology change that provides more flexible, lower-cost and better functions.

4:36 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Miles Harding

Also available are low cost RMS power meter ICs that can form the core of a cheap high accuracy 3-phase meter.

see here:

5:22 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Harley Mackenzie

I wasn’t aware of that – pity it isn’t more widespread.

5:37 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Chris Fraser

I asked for and got a free Email P1 meter from Ausgrid in 2009. They were giving them away because they believed at the time in time-of-use efficiency gains, which in turn mollified peak-time consumption pressure and grid investment. The good thing about Ausgrid is they offer the three peak, shoulder and off-peak tariffs. The off-peak tariff is only one-fifth of the peak. It turns out the savings in Ausgrid are immense. We feel for those that cannot take advantage of 11c/kWh tariffs, but we get so much done before 7am.

6:31 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Peter Thomson

As far a I can see smart meters are for one purpose and one purpose only – time of day billing. From my experience they have absolutely nothing to do with improving service levels to customers.

When I moved into rented accommodation in Melbourne earlier this year, I was unable to choose my electricity retailer because the incumbent, TruEnergy, refused release the account. They never did explain why, but since, as it later turned out, they were double-billing the agent and me for the same meter over the same period, this might have had something to do with it.

When the bills arrived, only consumption was shown – no absolute meter readings were provided so it was impossible to confirm that the bill was correct. With no other way of checking the bill (distributor Citypower had no portal at this time) I resorted to taking daily reads.
Tru explained to the Ombudsman that the bill was calculated by adding up the time-based consumption readings, so the billed amount may differ from the absolute readings. This was not accepted and they were compelled to provide absolute readings. Without this oversight they wouldn’t have done it.

When I left the property earlier this year, the ‘dumb’ water and gas meters were both read on the day of lease expiry, and the final bills presented at my new address within a week. The ‘smart’ electricity meter reading took well over a month to arrive, and was sent to my old address because their system couldn’t handle a following address.

I think a lot of these problems come from the split between distributor and retailer – the distributor reads the smart meters, but he retailer is responsible for billing the end-user. From my experience neither the distributors or the retailers have the right systems in place to make this system work effectively. Yet another massive software project snafu???

7:30 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

Peter Thomson

BTW the period I’m talking about is 2012-2013 – at no time in this period was I ever offered a time-of-use tariff.

7:31 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9


This video is very interesting, but you have probably also convinced the non-technical readers that DIY is really not for beginners. Even though the demo in the video was actually pretty straightforward, if presented the right way, it probably sounded intimidating as all Hell to a novice.

8:27 a.m., Thursday Oct. 9

kristian handberg

This is one of your most insightful pieces Giles in a long list of them.
The electricity retailers are hyperventilating with excitement at the prospect of locking in the most valuable customers/biggest users with contracts that bundle their proprietary/closed metering solution. The majority of electricity users will not understand the ramifications of this, and regulators seem unable to grasp the threat posed by the arrangements they are being bullied into accepting.

7:32 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


I am interested in an off the shelf product that diverts excess power from my somewhat oversized solar PV system to a hot water service, like this one:http://www.immersun.co.uk/. See also: http://www.solariboost.co.uk/ As far as I know, neither these or anything like them is available here.

The derisory tariff I get from AGL for the power I feed back in to the g rid from my system would be sufficient motivation for me to invest in a system like this right now.

When I am able to use my solar system to produce hot water, I will invest in an induction cook-top. Once that is done I will have no further need for my gas connection.

The increase in the price of gas that everyone agrees is coming could cause a lot of people to go down this path.

Alan Baird

What is really fascinating for the observer of the energy economy is the way the neo-liberal, consistently referring to “freeing up the market” (which means screwing down wages when THEY are ruminating about economics) is irritated by this very same dynamic coming back to bite them on the bum with the energy market. Corporations love to put ads about gas on tele but don’t mention that the price of gas will go through the roof for the punter watching the ad. A related matter, the politically agreed subsidisation of electricity for aluminium production, will once again distort the MARKET. The whole idea is to factor in the carbon production cost into the cost of any article. If it uses a lot of electricity (and coal), it costs comparatively more than an article that doesn’t. The price point means the material will only be used when absolutely necessary, not gratuitously. If the aluminium industry is so essential, it should set up the alternative energy production facilities to achieve this. They might even make some sales to turbine manufacturers or get a cut in their price! As if.

7:42 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


your on the money exactly the whole idea is to set tariff’s to maximise tariff it has absolutely zero to do with service.
Do not be surprised to see a solar tariff household having a day time cost of import set at low rate and the off daytime tariff higher.
The net result of course being storage which will just push the time to a later period for high charge in the evening.

7:46 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Arduino is a rocking good platform for all this magic, though there is a fair bit of other stuff needed to make it all roll.

This is something I’ve been working on for over 6 years now withsmartenergygroups.com, which uses Arduino at the heart of an open source hardware energy management platform.

This may be of some interest to people reading this!

Sam, @samotage

8:21 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


“The smart meter boat has sailed”.

Are you saying that people should DIY their own meters then self report their usage to the DNSP?

Yes there has been some problems with the existing tech procured, but metering needs to be reliable and importantly, trustworthy. Power of Choice was arguing for more competition in metering including equipment and cust omer spe cification, but the idea of DIY hackers building their own meter will not ever be allowed, for what I see as very obvious reasons (not so obvious to those here it seems).

8:39 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


I wouldn’t think so… it’s quite difficult to obtain revenue grade metering from open source platforms – though it is possible.

More applicable is using these platforms as tools downstream from the meter point where people can have real time access to information about where the energy is going and when. This is particularly powerful for energy efficiency targeting and demand management in the home – totally separate from the utility.

Sam, @samotage

9:01 p.m., Thursday Oct. 9


Ohh Alan. “Neo-liberal”, “screwing down wages”, “THEY”, “politically agreed subsidisation”. My God you don’t seem to be able to see a revolution when it is right under your nose. There are plenty of neo liberals who would like a clean energy future, Keep fighting the good fight comrade. We willl just be getting on with weeding out the vested interests defending the status quo (which includes you old boy with your 19th century (yes 1800s) perspective) and putting technological progress to work on behalf of the greater good. If aluminium is the political price that we have to pay to get some of the dimwits in the current government to roll over on the rest of the economy it is progress and a small price to pay given what Abbott and Co would have prefered to do.

4:29 a.m., Friday Oct. 10


There is a company looking for early adopters for a product that can talk directly with smart meters.and also monitor power usage independently of the meter, so you get readings side by side.


10:22 a.m., Friday Oct. 10

Miles Harding

After having tried one of those $50 pieces of equipment, I may end up doing my own so that it actually measures reactive power not the scalar VA product.

Think of it and the net will provide!
A few minutes of searching revealed this:

a hackerspace
It is my observation that when off-grid or semi-off grid systems are concerned, these are frequently built and installed by the sort of technical hackers that are capable of rolling their own systems. Many work in related fields and use their professional skills to produce very effective bespoke systems.

It is not difficult to envision energy management components that can be used in the hacker space described ed in the story. This would almost certainly be a better option than DIY, which requires considerable skill and experience to implement reliably and effectively.

From my own experience, I would like to find a reactive power meter that can be paralleled with the meter so that import/export energy can be effectively monitored. This is the sort of thing that should be readily available as part of the ‘smart meter’ offering, but isn’t.

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