The Origins of Metering
Since 1817, when Samuel Clegg pioneered metering for the gas lamps that lit up dark London streets, gas consumption in the UK has been measured. Mid-nineteenth century, prepayment or “slot meters” made gas more accessible and became common as both an on-demand utility and an early form of conservation. Metering ensured profitable delivery of services which enabled technological innovation, the expansion of the gas industry and the onset of resource management. Two hundred years later, innovations in IoT (Internet of Things) devices, expansion of low latency network coverage and advanced metering technology means an unprecedented volume of data is available on UK consumers’ use of gas and electricity. So why are consumers still sceptical about the benefits?
Research indicates that many consumers in the UK resist abandoning traditional approaches outright. Historically the rapid adoption of new technologies during the industrial revolution and the following century, spurred great innovation and prosperity however created miserable conditions for workers and their families, and gas appliances were notoriously dangerous. Additionally, global pressure to reduce the use of non-renewable energy sources combined with increased awareness of personal energy consumption, means informed consumers are making choices that reduce their burden of the cost of progress.
Natural gas is a non-regenerable energy resource that must be managed properly to protect it for future generations. The management of natural gas resources requires careful measurement, which in the early nineteenth century was by an hourly rate of flow and so the earliest consumer energy contracts included a fixed number of hours of usage. Gas company inspectors would walk the city streets of London at night monitoring gas light customers, notifying them when their time had expired and their lights needed to be extinguished. As is the case today, if a customer ignored a notification regarding their usage, the service was shut off. Later, households were charged for the volume of gas used based on the quantity and size of lamps in their home, leading to a supply system measuring cubic yards and delivered according to estimated volumes per fixture. This established a more accurate revenue collection for providers.
Enhanced electricity metering data now combined with data on global patterns of consumption, resource availability, weather patterns, a distributed grid system with multiple sources of supply, are contributing to electricity grid stability and energy security. Meter types, having evolved over two centuries, still push out data on our energy consumption, however now, with advanced interval meters (smart meters), we have two-way communication with users supported by in-home displays, and mobile applications.
The smart meter is considered to be one of the most mature and widely adopted applications of IoT technology today according to IoT Analytics’ recent Smart Meter Market Report 2019-2024, which also estimated global smart meter penetration (electricity, water & gas) to have surpassed 14% globally in 2019. The UK is still in the early phase of adoption, with a 2019 total of 15.2 million interval meters installed. By the time the target of 50 million is reached in 2024, Asia and Europe will be leading in smart grid industry transformation. Early adopters will be gaining insights, predicting trends, and anticipating the market impact of high volumes of data across a broad range of industries.
For 200 years, data has been essential for offering time-of-use tariffs, volume dis- counts, and pay-as-you-go billing options. Despite smart meters being the key instrument for utilities to gain market insights, measuring and sharing detailed consumer data is creating fears about privacy. Furthermore, the lack of standardisation in meter types and poor user experiences slows adoption. The potential is great but there are growing pains for consumers.
“ The potential is great but there are growing pains for consumers.”
Reasons for concern
Consumer fears are justified as history has shown, when we jump too fast into disruptive technologies there will inevitably be unanticipated consequences. The expectations of early adopters looking for data-driven economic returns must be balanced against risks to users. Fortunately, we are seeing more transparency as a result of technology and innovation, and the increasing value of the media in exposing historically risky patterns.
Fears about privacy are an issue in today’s marketplace. Consumers are aware that metering energy usage at micro intervals can tell a lot about personal behaviours while inhabiting the one place that is supposed to be safe and secure, and they are concerned about the security of their data. These legitimate concerns have increased the prominence of the role of Data Protection Officer and local specialised investigators addressing complaints and enforcing breaches.
What does GDPR mean for smart metering?
According to the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (GDPR), data collected by smart meters is classified as personal data, which must be processed in accordance with the GDPR guidelines which mandates that the processing of personal data requires a legitimate purpose. Other GDPR conditions include documentation, staff training, and data protection governance.
To deter abuses, metering companies are utilising encryption keys in data collection for legitimate business requirements. For the consumer’s protection, an energy retailer is required to provide up to two years’ worth of its customers’ data upon request. As consumers are becoming educated about their options, they are taking advantage of the benefits of a competitive marketplace and switching their providers more frequently.
Imagine the year 2035; all your major appliances have been feeding data back to their manufacturers for a decade now and are optimised for minimal energy consumption. Your dishwasher is turned on automatically at a time that is precisely calculated to use excess stored energy while the entire neighbourhood grid is balanced. Consumers have begun using their homes, in combination with solar energy production and im- proved storage technologies, to make energy security a reality for many communities.
In these early days of smart meter data analysis, there are already opportunities to identify anomalies in electricity usage such as broken or malfunctioning appliances and detailed energy production rates from solar equipment. By combining data from thousands of local households with meteorological data, the ability to predict loads and optimise grid systems is greatly enhanced, and energy storage can be optimised in advance of storms, heatwaves, and extreme regional weather events.
“It’s likely that homeowners, historically sceptical about efficient delivery and affordable pricing of electricity, will soon come around to its benefits, and realise how smart meters can contribute to a decarbonised energy economy.”
Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS), another term for the smart home, orchestrate programmable lights, thermostats, appliances, alarm system monitoring, and remote home surveillance. These systems have changed the design of new home utility rooms and sparked a whole new home improvement category.
Smart meter adaptation will eventually result in nudges; intentionally designed interventions that cause behavioural changes resulting in lower energy consumption. We may also soon see community initiatives to subsidise solar installations, standardised formats for gas and electricity tariffs, and a distributed resource register that shows all energy providers within a grid. Metering has come a long way since it was introduced in 1817, and today’s game-changing technology is evolving at a rapid pace. It’s likely that homeowners, historically sceptical about efficient delivery and affordable pricing of electricity, will soon come around to its benefits, and realise how smart meters can contribute to a decarbonised energy economy.