Thursday, October 13, 2011

Smart Meters

Yeah, I know, Pat J said it all. Mostly. But I want to rant, too!

There's been a lot of press about "smart meters" lately. Basically a lot of fuzzy thinking and fear-mongering, as far as I can tell. Of course, it doesn't help that the whole decision-making process surrounding the roll-out of these things appears to be cloaked in secrecy (thereby providing a petri-dish for conspiracy theorists).

In any case, the main purpose of electricity meters is to measure how much your household uses, so that BCHydro can bill you accordingly. Right now, this is done by sending someone over to your house periodically to "read the meter".

There are several things that could be improved about this system:

1. the meter could be made so that it could register your use in time periods. So, for instance, it could count up how much electricity you use in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Since this is easy to do in software, you can imagine having a "programmable" meter. This way, BCHydro could encourage people to use energy during overall low-demand periods by making the electrons cheaper then, of course publicizing when those times are.

2. the meter could be (periodically) connected to the internet, making the meter maid / man redundant, as they say in Britain. Also, if the meters are programmable, software updates could be "pushed" to your meter; BCHydro could tune the time-buckets without having to send someone over to your house with a USB stick. Also, smart meters make it much easier to determine if the power is out to your house - all you have to do is ping said meter. Right now, power outages are determined by driving a truck around the neighbourhood to see if the lights are on.

3. the meter could communicate with the appliances in your house (provided that they were programmable) to let them know when electrons are cheap. So, for instance, a programmable fridge or freezer could be told to run a titch warmer during high-demand times - saving energy without letting the food go bad. A washing machine could be programmed to wash at night. Any plug-in electrical vehicles could be used to "even out" demand a bit by letting BCHydro "use" their batteries while they are plugged in.

If we wish to encourage energy conservation, then clearly point 1 should be implemented.

Idea number 2 is a convienience for BCHydro, and it would have to make a business case for this, and either build it into the meter or not. Much of the hoo-ha has been that this business case has never seen the light of public scrutiny.

Item number 3 is not one that is going to save huge amounts of energy, and clearly our appliances are not in any kind of shape to take advantage of this stuff. The turnover on big appliances like water heaters, washing machines, and fridges is on the order of decades, so the possibility of having this happen is years out and shouldn't be driving the discussion. Besides, it is very unclear to me that BC requires this type of "moderating" of demand, because our electricity comes mostly from hydro, which is a very flexible source and can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat (it is much more dispatchable than a coal/gas/nuclear/oil - fired plant).

But in order get people interested in saving electricity, the most important thing is a rate scheme that makes peak electrons more expensive than non-peak ones. Yep, most people would see this as an increase in energy costs. Which it is. But guess what, pain in the wallet is the only thing that will cause us to conserve energy. And make no mistake, we need to do this. Our entire economy is built on growth. Growth requires an increasing energy supply. More widgets, more computer programs, more people = more electricity required. So, in an effort to stave off paving over ever more of our wilderness, BC Hydro is bound to encourage us to waste less. And, with bascially the cheapest electricity on the planet, believe me, we waste.

What I really don't get though, is that we are now giving everyone smart meters, basically at huge cost to the taxpayer, and not jacking up hydro rates to finance them. This makes absolutely no sense to me. In fact this is all backwards. You should instead implement a new rate scheme first, and offer "smart meters" for sale.  People who think they can save money (and aren't afraid of the Dr. Magda Havas WiFi waves) can implement one on their own dime. For low-income households you can supply "forward-financing" schemes, where the device is paid for out of its own savings, over time.

Variable rates are a fact of life all over most of the rest of the developed world. In Europe, they've employed a "low-tech" method for metering for decades: most houses have 2 meters on them - one for night use and one for day use. Those aren't provided by the government, either - consumers happily pay for 'em!

No comments:

Post a Comment