Meter company disputes Environment Commissioner report

Supplier of smart electricity meters says they are upgradable

“Smart” electricity meters deployed in Christchurch suit the current New Zealand environment and can be upgraded to support new network interfaces, supplier Arc Innovations says.

The metering project came under fire from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, last month when she issued a report saying the meters weren’t smart enough.

The report, “Smart Electricity Meters — how households and the environment can benefit” generated a flurry of comment on the technology, but the meter technology provider questions the Commissioner’s contention that meters recently deployed could have been smarter.

A truly smart meter, Wright claims, can schedule domestic appliances to switch on when electricity is cheap — providing the supplier is willing to price it that way. The meter needs to possess three capabilities to fully benefit the consumer, she says; a network-capable chip in the meter, “smart appliances” with their own network chips and “smart pricing”, whereby the power companies offer discounts at periods of low demand.

Smart-meter deployment in the Christchurch region started three years ago, says Grant Simpson, general manager of marketing for Arc Innovations. At that time there were no firm standards and the consortium in charge of developing them was a different body from the Zigbee Alliance the Commissioner is focusing on, he says.

A report earlier this year on smart meter technology by US analyst firm ON World casts doubt on Wright’s contention of a rapid overseas spread of “smart” technology. Despite its optimistic tone, the report predicts only 20 million such “energy-smart homes” worldwide by 2013.

The technology requires microchips in the meter and appliances communicating through a home area network (HAN). The network medium can be the existing domestic wiring system, says the commissioner’s report, but wireless communication using Bluetooth or the specialist protocol, Zigbee, is a better option.

Zigbee is supported by an alliance of companies including Phillips, Honeywell, GE, Texas Instruments and metering specialist Landis & Gyr. It is based on a version of the IEEE 801 wireless protocol known as 802.15.4.

Power companies here question how ready for the market this technology is and how it might change before a substantial number of households in the country are ready to implement it.

The Electricity Commission has a set of voluntary guidelines on metering; these provide that meters should have a “suitable HAN interface”.

The commission prefers not to regulate, but to rely on cooperation of retailers, says spokesman Peter Thornbury.

It is, however, concerned that standards be open, so users are free to move their business between providers without having to change their meter.

Simpson says the current Christchurch meters have “an open port” that could be used for a HAN interface in the future, but he acknowledges there will be a cost attached to such an upgrade.

He also casts doubt on the utility of a special-purpose home display of electricity consumption that Wright sees as a short-term cost saver.

Such devices have been tried and “end up in a drawer” after a brief period of use, he says.

A better solution would be that increasingly familiar device the home PC, combined with account information from the power provider’s website, he says. Arc Innovations’ parent Meridian Energy has already begun providing such data (Computerworld, September 8, 2008) and plans to improve its frequency of real time updates.

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Tags technologysmart metersarc innovationsenvorinment commissioner

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