Pilgrim Beart, cofounder and CEO of DevicePilot discusses how to exploit the potential of smarter meters
In the decade since the UK really started its Smart Meter rollout, it is fair to say the effect has been a little underwhelming. Companies, consumers and utilities are yet to realise the full potential of Smart Meters, and their benefits have mainly been limited to streamlining billing processes for utilities and allowing consumers to monitor their energy usage more easily.
This doesn’t exactly amount to the energy revolution that many predicted Smart Meters would usher in, but you could argue this is largely due to factors outside of their control. However, with over 10 million of the devices now installed across the country and a slew of other Smart Energy devices entering the market, Smart Meters may now start to deliver on their true promise. The next phase of development will require that they actually work reliably for all customers, which is easier said than done and often overlooked.
The past – what has held Smart Meters back?
Over their relatively short lifecycle, Smart Meters have had a number of issues they have had to overcome. In the early days of the complex rollout – the SMETS1 phase – there was no centralised mechanism for managing meters. This meant that when a household changed supplier, the meters reverted back to “dumb” mode, which was a headache for utilities and customers. With the initiation of SMETS2, these problems were solved, with the DCC acting as the clearing house for meter communications.
Also, it is fair to say that Smart Meters were perhaps a little before their time. Their greatest strength is as an enabler for other Smart Energy technologies, especially as we shift more and more towards renewables, because of the changes they drive in areas such as time-of-use tariffs, “prosumer” on-site generation, EVs and more. However, Smart Meters arrived on the scene before many of these other technologies, meaning they have had little to enable and manage, hence the modest benefits we have seen thus far.
The present – Smart Meters showing their promise
We are finally beginning to see a number of Smart Energy devices enter the market en masse. PV generation and connected heating are firmly into the mainstream these days, and green shoots are starting to emerge from the likes of EV charging, heat pumps and battery storage. This is only set to accelerate as we push on towards the net zero targets recently strengthened in government legislation and driven by environmentally conscious consumers.
Of course, many of these advances rely on renewable energy, which fluctuates a lot more in supply and demand than traditional power generation – the wind blows when it blows and the sun shines when it shines. This has made the wholesale price of energy a lot more volatile, with “agile” tariffs now being rolled out by utilities, whereby the price of electricity is changed every half hour, with costs varying according to supply and demand.
This has given Smart Meters a real opportunity to shine as they have the ability to be the device of record in applying dynamic tariffs correctly, enabling a much more flexible, sustainable grid. By joining all of these previously siloed dots together, Smart Meters can enable renewable sources of energy to really take off.
The future – growing the trend
With the grid coming to rely on renewables more and more – and one day wholly – the role of Smart Meters is only set to increase. For the customer, increasingly it will be normal to find your hot water automatically heating in mid-afternoon to be used later in the day because the sun has started to really shine, or your car starting to charge at 5AM because the wind has really picked up. Smart Meters will not only play a key role in balancing the boom-bust seesaw of energy supply for utilities, but also deliver savings on the price of energy for consumers.
The next hurdle
The stars are aligning for Smart Meters, but that doesn’t guarantee that we will suddenly see them deliver value. The next challenge will be to ensure that Smart Maters – as well as all of the other connected devices we are seeing enter our homes – actually work reliably so they can deliver an effective and dependable service on which everything else depends.
With any Smart rollout, service providers can hit problems once they have a few thousand devices in the wild. Until this point, it is possible to keep track of what is happening on a fleet of Smart Meters through a mixture of brainpower and spreadsheets, but once a provider is receiving data from many devices, it quickly becomes very hard to distinguish the wood from the trees. With problems constantly occurring across the device estate, the provider needs to understand quickly if they are serious and/or urgent. Questions over whether their Smart Meters are delivering a good service can become hard to answer and many providers have little idea of what meter performance they are delivering. This often leads to poor performance and a high volume of customer complaints, which is unacceptable.
Service Management technology is crucial to solving this problem. By offering service providers a ‘single pane of glass’ view of their entire fleet of Smart Meters, it is possible to not only identify problems – often before the customers even realise there is an issue – but to also resolve them more accurately and efficiently. This enables service providers to take a much more proactive stance to customer service, instead of having to constantly respond to angry complaints.
Without effective Service Management, Smart Meters will never truly be able to realise their full potential. With such a pivotal role in delivering a greener grid, it is essential that service providers get this right, otherwise the boom/bust nature of renewable energy will be nigh-on impossible to manage.