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Sunday 22 July 2007

Getting physical with smart metering

With the energy industry, NGOs, government, meter manufacturers and others involved in the 'smart metering interoperability' process, the interoperbility conversation is getting very political, very technical, and that can lead people to miss some simple but important opportunities.

At present, the debate is focussed on data, communications and infrastructure standards (see the ERA's SRSM documents to get a quick briefing). Getting this right is hugely important (not least so that information can be delivered to consumers effectively), but it's not the whole issue: there are other valuable outcomes of an intelligently designed infrastructure.

The enormous cost of the proposed smart metering rollout is only partly down to the cost of the meters themselves and the supporting infrastructure: the fitting costs comes close to a billion pounds in the UK. This is a recurring cost, as meters need to be replaced regularly.

One waste-reduction opportunity that we have not heard about in the current debate is physical interface standards. The sites and conditions for installation vary widely, and require highly qualified technicians to spend significant time on each site. Enormous amounts of time and materials are wasted on each installation.

A simple modular plug-in design for new meters would help. This would guarantee the meter some conditions – like being waterproof, lockable, etc. – and enable low cost future installations and replacements, while reducing friction in the meter market. Critically, this backboard chassis could provide some low-cost services itself, reducing meter design risks. The proposal would add a small marginal cost to an initial rollout, and save tens of millions of pounds every year after that.