Are we trying to be too smart about smart metering?

By Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
By Craig Edge, chief consulting engineer, Wheatley Associates

With yet another delay announced in the U.K. government's proposed smart meter implementation plan, the time has come to take stock of the situation, reflect on the rollout and ask the question, "Are we trying to be too smart about smart metering in the U.K.?"

On May 10, 2013, the U.K.'s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced that it was putting back the start of the full-scale U.K. smart meter rollout program by one year to fall 2015 with targeted completion for 50-plus million smart meters in 30-plus homes and businesses by the end of 2020. DECC said the main reason for this delay is to give suppliers more time to create the data communications network that will underpin the rollout.

There is no denying that the smart metering program has the potential to transform energy management and consumption in the U.K. if all goes to plan. Considerable cost savings are potentially available to suppliers and consumers alike. But are we really being overambitious and biting off more than we can chew?

It is a colossal undertaking. Although there is nothing wrong with grand plans, the U.K.'s track record on IT projects of this scope and scale is not good. Maybe this further slippage is just symptomatic of trying to implement a program that is both overcomplicated and overcontrolled. When it cones to technology-based projects, how realistic is it to expect the network infrastructure to have an extended life-span of 20 years, as mandated? Is a one-time solution really feasible?

Here in the U.K., with smart metering intended to cover both gas and power supplies, we have arguably embarked upon one of the most ambitious implementation programs yet conceived. Other countries, by contrast, are focusing solely on strategies for electricity. It also seems something of a paradox that, given the U.K. energy market's recent history of deregulation and competition, smart metering in the U.K. has indirectly led us to seek to develop a highly regulated, centralized communications infrastructure to manage the data and energy management requirements. Communication of data to and from smart meters in the domestic sector will be managed centrally by a new, country-wide function covering both the electricity and gas sectors, known as the central data and communications company.

As the program generalities give way to the detail of the high-level deliverables, there remain a small but significant number of the technical requirements that still do not have a proven solution on the table. The mechanism to make the smart metering accessible to almost all customers, un a non-discriminatory manner, is still searching for a capable and reliable technology. Rather than criticize the delay, Dr. Martyn Thomas, chairman of the IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, called for the government to take advantage of the time to formalize specifications for the system that are currently only expressed informally, leading to a danger of "inconsistency, ambiguity and contradiction."

But once specified, what chance is there that it will still be fit for purpose in twenty years, as required? Surely flexibility and openness to technology advances will be essential for ongoing success? Just look at the development of the mobile telecommunications industry as a comparative example.

The wireless nature of the proposed communications network needed to underpin the smart metering program also opens up a potential strategic vulnerability to the utility system as a whole. Industry commentators are increasingly expressing concern that this is not being properly addressed. Little consideration has apparently been given to how the proposed wireless network might be hacked and the suggestion is that it will be with ease. With the energy supply system until now largely protected by its invisibility, suddenly there will be a proliferation of potential access and consequently hacking points. The system compliant smart meters currently available are also coming in for criticism for their apparent lack of security.

Certainly, the objectives of reducing carbon dioxide output, improving competitiveness in the energy sector and increasing energy security are as laudable today as when the government first mandated the installation of smart meters by October 2008. But, nearly five years on, it is hard to argue that anything has yet changed for U.K. households or, indeed, that the future holds an abundance of promise.

There continues to be a distinct lack of public understanding about the smart metering proposals. Skepticism, disinterest and a simple lack of knowledge abound and rather than seeking to effect a substantial shift in attitudes, many of the key benefits messages are seemingly being diluted. Many of the benefits expounded on government and quasi-government websites seem alarmingly unambitious for the estimated program cost of $18 billion, a cost that is bound to rise. If you want to be super critical, many of the benefits that smart metering will deliver could be achieved at a fraction of the cost through the installation of simple prepayment meters!

Nevertheless, smart metering is undoubtedly the way forward. Constantly reviewing the project and slipping the timetable is no bad thing if it ensures that we get it right. But there remains an open question for us all: Should there be a broader and deeper review of the current approach? Having flirted with revolution, and probably rightly so, perhaps it is time to contemplate switching to a more evolutionary approach.


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