A smart grid is a transactive grid.
- Lynne Kiesling
Do Smart Meters Forget About Consumers?

Via The Energy Collective, an interesting commentary on the fact that consumers – unfortunately – seem to be after-thoughts when it comes to smart meter deployments and the ability to obtain & use real-time data about their electricity use.  This is one reason the authors of this blog have long felt the deployment of smart meters and smart grids WITHOUT having smart “markets” established to provide consumers with a reason to monitor & conserve – even if the market is “off-line” is a flawed model .  As the article notes:

“…The 64K question lurking in the shadows of the entire smart meter discussion is whether they’ll be any benefit to consumers. Based on a discussion I had yesterday with Robert Cappadocia, it appears that the homeowner’s ability to monitor electricity use so that you can save money in the future is purely incidental. According to Cappadocia, Supervisor of  Smart Metering for Toronto Hydro, this is true not only of Toronto Hydro, but also of many of the early smart meters in the States. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you won’t benefit from smart meters eventually, it’s just that when they first went into service, they were meeting the needs of utilities that didn’t want to drive to remote locations to read meters, or wanted to impose time of use rates. Will you benefit from smart meters? Yeah, eventually. Will you ever have real-time data? Probably.

Cappadocia illuminated a key misunderstanding about smart meters, the widely embraced gateway to Google Powermeter and GE Net Zero Energy Home among other energy management resources: It wasn’t until they’d been bought and installed that some of the most useful reasons to have them became clear. “We were meeting a provincial mandate to provide time-of-use data for utilities,” Cappadocia says. And frankly, that’s all they were trying to do. Early smart meters (by which we mean 2005 installations) were stripped down in functionality to be cost efficient. That means that some of the most valuable functionality – and here, we’re talking about things as basic as alerting the utility that the power was out – were deemed unnecessary. That’s right. Generation I of Smart Meters in Ontario can’t tell Hydro that the power is out. The customer still has to call. (When the power comes back on, the Smart Meter is clever enough to note that it fainted on the job).

There are a host of smart meters that can’t be read remotely, because they aren’t hooked up yet… but… wait for it… all of those smart meters (even the power blind ones) essentially have the capacity to provide consumers with real-time data about their electricity use. Toronto Hydro is piloting that use, with a very small pilot of In Home Displays that receive meter data “a couple of times per minute.”  (Capaddocia acknowledged that as currently configured, the In Home Displays work almost exactly like a TED, The Energy Detective).  In other words… Smart Meters have the capacity to provide real time data in a basic format to consumers, right now. That service, provided to a handful of early adapters of the Hydro website, is separate from the utility-serving functionality of the Smart Meter, and there are no plans to implement this feature broadly.

Here’s how Smart Meters work right now: data leaves my smart meter and travels to Hydro, which sends it to an IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) which places the data into time-of-use buckets then sends it back to Hydro, which sends it to my screen, 24 hours later. Sound cumbersome? He thinks so, too. Hydro has the capacity to do everything the IESO does, and it looks forward to taking that role over.  And by the way, even with all those steps… given that they’re all really just electronic exchanges… why does it take so long?

Smart Meters send data every hour to a collector.  There are 1,300 collectors, each of which is responsible for receiving readings from about 400 meters. So why isn’t hourly data available? Because…  “Hydro reads meters once a day.”  Turns out, 2 am is meter-reading time for Toronto Hydro. At 2am, Hydro calls the collectors to gather data. I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. Call, as in telephone? “Yeah, we’re using dial up.” And for the foreseeable future, Cappadocia predicts that Toronto Hydro will continue to use dial-up. The result is 400,000 meters read in 2 hours, and no more estimated bills, which is a big improvement. It’s also a far cry from real-time monitoring.

When will consumers get real-time monitoring? Cappadocia, who I must note was endlessly courteous and helpful, said that was a very good question. He also said that he agreed “absolutely” that real-time monitoring is the best tool for consumers. “It’s far more valuable,” than the current system of 24 hour later reporting.  “I don’t dispute that at all.  I think we’ll eventually get there.”  It’s just… not the top priority. What is? Making sure that consumers get billed very precisely, and charged when they use electricity during peak hours … creating a culture of conservation.

And when will real-time monitoring become the priority? When consumers demand it. Those in-home displays – they’ve been given to the early adapters of the website (read: the people who were on to it). If Hydro learns that consumers really want real-time monitoring, they’ll respond.  But it won’t be quick, and it won’t necessarily be easy. I caught a glimpse during this conversation of a hesitation I suspect many utility companies feel: people with data can be a real burden to call centers. “What if the information on your screen is different from the data on your utility’s screen?” Indeed.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 at 6:24 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

About This Blog And Its Authors
Grid Unlocked is powered by two eco-preneurs who analyze and reference articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between smart meters, smart grids, and above all: smart markets.

Based on decades of experience and interest in conservation, Monty Simus and Jamie Workman believe that a truly “smart” grid must be a “transactive” grid, unshackled from its current status as a so-called “natural monopoly.”

In short, an unlocked grid must adopt and harness the power of markets to incentivize individual users, linked to each other on a large scale, who change consumptive behavior in creative ways that drive efficiency and bring equity to use of the planet's finite and increasingly scarce resources.