Everyone will get smart meters by 2020. But what's involved in the roll out?

As 2008 drew to a close, EU leaders agreed a radical approach to dealing with climate change: the so called triple 20 energy targets. EU nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption by 20%, as well as ensuring that 20% of the EU's energy mix is supplied by renewables. All of these reductions against 1990's levels are to be accomplished by 2020. Carbon footprints and energy consumption are, to the man in the street, fairly nebulous figures. But, on average, each person in the UK consumes 120kWhr of power per day, which results in the generation of 30kg of CO2. So how will the UK Government meet its obligations? Targeting energy consumption has been seen to be one of the best ways in which the triple 20 targets may be met: lower energy consumption should make an immediate contribution to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, technologies such as wind and tidal power will help cut greenhouse gas emissions even further. In the longer term, the Government has committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of their 1990 levels by 2050. The Government believes – as does the European Union in general – that consumers can be helped to reduce their energy consumption by providing them with more information about how much energy is being used by what and when. A display of some kind, the thinking goes, could tell you that your house is consuming a certain amount of power. The householder can then work out whether all active devices are actually needed. This is the basic concept behind smart metering, but the idea goes further than that. Developing and installing these smart meters will be a massive enterprise fraught with difficulties. As all governments look to control energy consumption, smart meter programmes are being developed around the world. The smart meter will improve energy efficiency and demand management, smart meters will require smart grids and smart homes and the combination of all three elements is set to manage energy consumption from the point of generation to the user. Alastair Morfey is technology director and leader of the semiconductor group at Cambridge Consultants. "People feel that smart metering will be an important component of reducing climate change. That's not necessarily valid, but people feel that if more information is available, more intelligent decisions could be taken." But meters are going to be changed. By 2020, all energy consumers in the UK will have had a smart meter fitted. In total, this will require 25million new electricity meters and 22million new gas meters. The problem is that nobody has really agreed what the smart meter will 'look like' and be able to accomplish. "There has been a lot of talk," said Morfey, "but decisions are mainly being made in the UK. However, there's a lot of EU countries trying to agree interface standards so devices can talk to each other. But it's difficult." Morfey is part of those discussions, serving on the LAN committee. And that indicates part of the problem's scale: smart meters – by themselves – will achieve little. In order for the smart meter approach to contribute to the Government's targets, there has to be interaction; not only between the various elements in the house, but also with the wider world in general. One of the problems is just how the various elements should communicate. The elements in question are the devices owned by the householder – such as washing machines, fridges, tvs and pcs – as well as the meters in the house – certainly electricity and gas, possibly water. The in house devices need to be able to talk to each other and an in house LAN of some description is being discussed. The meters also need to communicate with these devices. Meters then need to communicate with the outside world – either individually or through some form of gateway. There is also discussion on whether there should be some form of local data concentration at the street level before wider communications takes the link back to the energy supplier's head end computer. And hanging over all of these discussions is another question: who will own – and therefore be responsible for – the various networks that might be installed? "One of the challenges is how to get these 'boxes' hooked up," Morfey noted. "What's likely to happen is a big roll out of smart meters and gateways, which will enable suppliers of domestic appliances to follow on afterwards." Yet, despite the international discussions, some countries have already started the process independently. Italy, for example, has installed 30m smart meters. All very well, but these have no ability to communicate with devices in the home. "It's a huge investment," Morfey observed, "but it seems a wasted opportunity. If there is a big investment to be made, it would seem to be sensible to do this in such a way that more stakeholders can gain from that investment." Morfey, from his involvement with the Supplier Requirements for Smart Meters LAN committee – established by the supply side Energy Retailers Association – says that all countries appear to want some form of LAN standard to be developed and for that standard to be used in gas and electricity meters. "It will be much harder to implement in a gas meter because there's less power available," he said. "Cambridge Consultants is designing gas meters that can run for 15 years from an AA battery; a power consumption of about 15µA at 3V. That's much lower than the power taken by an electricity meter, which can legally draw up to 2W. While meters don't use that much power, they do use more than 50µW." Ideally, says Morfey, the same physical interface can be used with all elements in the system. "Some countries will agree a standard for the meters, but will not have a view on appliances. I think that's a missed opportunity because appliance manufacturers have been trying to link for years and they haven't been making headway. If meters have a standard interface, it will give a kick start to the market and appliances will have to be made with that interface." One thing of which Morfey is convinced is the need for the interface to and from the meter to be radio based. And the most compelling reason for this is the location of gas and electricity meters in the house. "Smart meters will be installed in exactly the same place your meters are today; the installation process is going to be difficult enough as it is, without having to move cables and pipes. "If you then want to encourage appliances to use the information that's available, then they have to connect and radio is the best solution." But what that radio solution will be is unclear as six approaches are still being considered: Wireless M-Bus at 868MHz; Wavenis at 868MHz; Z-Wave at 868MHz; ZigBee at 868MHz; ZigBee at 2.4GHz; and Bluetooth Low Energy at 2.4GHz. "I think the leading contender is ZigBee at 2.4GHz," Morfey admitted, "but the Netherlands and Germany are pushing for Wireless M-Bus." Once a standard is agreed and the information becomes available, what can be done with it? "If you have more information, then you can make more informed decisions: for example, comparing your data on a day to day basis or with the same day in the previous year," Morfey offered. "And there's lots of work being done to create displays with more friendly user interfaces. But I don't think that will be enough; devices themselves will have to make decisions." Domestic consumption monitoring is one avenue being pursued by Onzo. The company is working with Scottish and Southern Energy, the UK's second largest energy retailer, on a wide scale deployment of the Smart Energy Kit. The kit consists of a display, a sensor and web portal. The display, which can be positioned in the home in a variety of ways, delivers information that helps consumers to make real time decisions on their energy usage. It receives data wirelessly from a self charging sensor installed on a cable from the electricity meter. The display can be connected to a pc, and data can then be uploaded to a web portal, where consumers can access more detailed information. Joel Hagan, Onzo's chief executive, said: "If the Government is serious about cutting CO2 emissions, it needs to tackle the chronic energy inefficiency of the country's existing homes. The most promising way to deal with the problem in practical terms is by promoting behaviour change among householders. Already, some energy providers – First Utility is one – are offering billing in intervals of as little as 30minutes. Not only does that help the consumer to take advantage of time of use pricing, it also helps the electricity grid in general. "It's important, because while gas can be stored, the electricity grid has to match supply and demand," Morfey explained. "Time of use pricing will be useful," he continued. "There's no reason why a washing machine shouldn't decide when it starts by 'listening' to the energy network and choosing the cheapest time." Balancing energy supply with demand is likely to become more important in the near future. Power stations are being decommissioned and their replacements aren't being built quickly enough. A number of experts – including Professor David MacKay, the Department for Energy and Climate Change's recently appointed chief scientific advisor – believe 'brown outs' are likely in the UK as early as 2015. Most of Cambridge Consultants' work in this area is with product developers. "Our meter work," Morfey continued, "is including the technical 'hooks' that allow an infrastructure to be created later. The metrology aspect is stable; communications and security are unstable and vary from country to country." And Morfey believes security is a really important element – particularly for the UK, with its philosophy of changing suppliers regularly. "There are around 100,000 changes of supplier a week," he claimed, "and each change triggers 26 changes of contract. It's going to be essential in the future that, when people change their supplier, they don't need a new meter or require different software to be loaded. Energy suppliers also want all meters to be switchable remotely between credit and prepayment modes." In a likely arrangement, consumers will make a payment to a head end computer, which will then download a message over a WAN connection, then a LAN link to the meter. Switches in electricity meters and motorised valves in gas meters would then control supply. "They don't want anything physical in the system," Morfey contended. "If the security system is broken, every electricity meter in the country could be turned off and the national grid overloaded. Connected systems can be vulnerable and the bigger the target, the bigger the price." Remote software upgrades and downloads could be a weakness for smart meters. "Whatever the operation, it will have to prove it's a valid upgrade," Morfey noted, "and the only way this can be enabled is with full asymmetric cryptography; every device will need a private and a public key." The challenge, however, is to install the new meters. Whatever their format, installing the new devices will require an operation of a scale unseen since the early 1970s, when the UK was converted to use North Sea gas.