The Future of the Electricity Meter

May 18, 2017 • Blog Post • Colin I'Anson, Chief Technologist for IOT in the Enterprise Group EMEA.

How the Internet of Things challenges the way we measure energy

The revolution of connected objects brings into question the way we meter energy consumed. Smart meters have been considered the future of metering technology but even these are now being questioned as a long term solution.

The invention of the electricity meter was vital to the development of electricity distribution by allowing customers to be billed for the power used. The first commonly used electricity meter was the Blathy meter, named after its inventor Ottó Bláthy, and introduced at the Frankfurt Fair in 1889. Since then, electricity meters have been deployed across all transmission and distribution networks and haven't changed much since.

In 2012, HPE's R&D department began an innovative project that aimed to verify how accurately we could estimate the energy consumption of each of the floors and buildings of the 28,000m2 company headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif...without any meters.

After an exhaustive survey, our engineers identified more than 6,000 sensors measuring factors associated with energy consumption such as air flow, humidity, indoor and outdoor temperature. Using advanced correlation technology, our researchers found they could determine heat consumption with a margin of 1 to 5%, and power consumption with a margin of error of the order of 1% - the same margin of error as approved European electricity meters!

The project was intended to support the implementation of a preventive maintenance regime rather than superseding meters, but it shows that it is already possible to determine the consumption of an office building with a high degree of accuracy without installing any electricity meters.

The British smart meter program is under way, but many experts predict that the programme will undergo significant changes. In fact, the UK Parliament recently debated the value of the UK smart meter program due to the overall cost being estimated at £11.6 billion. A number of simpler, and considerably cheaper, suggestions have been put forward by some members of Parliament. Another major criticism of the smart meter program is that it does not address one of the main issues facing energy distributors - namely the impact on the network of distributed power generation from solar, wind and other sources.

This same rationale explains why Germany did not roll out its own smart meters as widely as first planned. German utilities are now investing in the development of broadband powerline communications (BPLC) technologies that offer much more bandwidth than traditional technologies. The ultimate goal is to access the meter not once per half hour but every few seconds in order to control all kinds of intelligent, electric equipment. In this situation, traditional metering functionality becomes marginalised.

This trend will only continue with the growing influence of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the lives of citizens and businesses. In February 2016, Bouygues Telecom announced the launch of Objenious, a subsidiary specializing in IoT management and focused on the supervision of electrical equipment. SigFox, a competitor, already has an equivalent offer developed in collaboration with TECSOL to supervise photovoltaic power plants. In these cases, meter reading through low throughput networks can be done much more cost effectively.

The availability of embedded meters could encourage the emergence of new billing methods based on connection, similar to those common in the Telecommunication business. As mentioned in the earlier example, these sensors are already included in many devices sold by companies such as General Electric, Schneider Electric or HP Inc. for the purpose of preventive maintenance. The proliferation of sub-metering devices like the new board from Schneider Electric, Stick-it sub meters, Netatmo or Nest thermostats is increasing the pressure on old style meters.

With the widespread adoption of decentralized electricity generation and the falling price of storage technologies, it is quite possible that the traditional electricity meter will disappear. Current meters' primary purpose is to monitor energy flow and thus to allow the remuneration of distribution and centralized power generation companies. With the increasing development of auto consumption, resale to third parties and micro grids however, the role of distribution companies is likely to change significantly.

The future will see a proliferation of offers with a variety of energy sources and the need to control and monitor an increasing range of equipment. The main advantage of tomorrow's metering units will be less in classic measurement than high speed communication, device control and integration into networks. In that sense, it's likely that historical meters, and even those currently called "smart", will be quickly superseded.