Billion smart meters a great start

Smart meters use two-way communication to reduce energy consumption and improve efficiency. And the world is on course to have nearly 1 billion of them by 2020, thanks largely to a big push for smart metering in China. This is a great start.

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Smart meters help change energy consumption patterns

By being smarter, the meters save money for both consumers and utilities. Research shows that people use less energy when they see how much they are using: smart metering allows households to see the effect of turning off a couple of lights. This aspect alone has been shown to cut power bills by 5-10 percent.

Just as some operators offer cheaper off-peak phone calls, power companies are becoming able to provide lower off-peak energy tariffs. Of course, it also means they can charge comparatively more during peak times, but by discouraging peak-time use they can defer expansion of their generating capacity.

Households with small-scale power generation can even sell excess electricity back to the smart grid. And real-time (or close to real-time) monitoring means consumers more accurate bills, rather than a nasty surprise.

Clean technology analysts Pike Research had previously predicted that the world would reach 251 million smart meters by 2015; this week it upgraded that forecast to 535 million by 2015, with 963 million by 2020.

One factor here is a huge push in China for smart meters, something that can only be seen as positive. Even though the smart meters being installed in China aren’t as advanced as some in other markets, they should still help limit the rampant expansion in generating capacity the country needs to meet skyrocketing demand. China plans to build 20 new nuclear power stations over the next decade, and at one stage last year, it was launching two new power stations a WEEK!

That is unsustainable.

I have seen some opposition to smart meters, largely based on four arguments.

One is privacy: if the government (or electricity company) can see your power consumption patterns, they will know what you are doing, infringing on your privacy. But is the fact that I am doing laundry or watching TV really so interesting?

Another is radiation: activist movements, particularly in California, oppose having any extra transmitters in their homes. Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) can affect health, but the transmission power of smart meters is tiny compared even to mobile phones, and there is no serious research suggesting any detrimental effect. An oft-quoted “fact” on the anti-smart meter sites is that EMR is recognized as a health hazard. It is, but the energy from smart meters is nowhere near the levels that are seen as affecting health.

A third argument is cost. Smart metering can lead to higher bills for some users. But part of the idea is to use price pressure to get people to change their consumption patterns. If you run your dishwasher and washing machine off-peak, your bill will fall. Run them in peak times, and your bill will rise.

The fourth big argument is the one that offends me the most. Many of the anti sites complain that smart meters are a way of reducing energy consumption as part of tackling climate change. But they see the concept of climate change and global warming as part of a conspiracy. They say they have the right to consume as much energy as they want, and nobody is allowed to challenge that right. Personally, I find this dangerous and deluded.

If you believe that reducing energy consumption is a good thing, for our planet, our societies and our personal finances, then smart meters are a good thing too. And a billion of them by the end of the decade would be a great start, and a great boost for our Networked Society.


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