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Moving electricity meters beyond smart

Smart meters have had a mixed press in the UK. They’re not as smart as they should be and do not offer enough benefits to the users.

By John Oates

Despite the problems the target of fitting them to every home and business by 2020 remains in place.

But Internet of Things technology is making smart meters increasingly irrelevant.
In 2012, HPE’s research and development department began a project to see how accurately they could estimate the energy consumption of each of the floors and buildings of the 28,000 square metre company headquarters in Palo Alto.

But they wanted to do this without using any meters at all.

Instead they used IoT sensors throughout the buildings. As is often the case with this type of big data project the analysis provided some big surprises and an unexpected outcome.

A detailed survey 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, the engineers found they could determine heat consumption with a margin of 1 to 5 per cent, and power consumption with a margin of error of the order of 1 per cent.

That is exactly the same margin of error which European electricity meters must meet.

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The project was intended to support a preventive maintenance programme rather than replacing 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.

This change might well change future development of smart meters.

Because increasing numbers of electronic devices already include IoT sensors to enable preventative maintenance.

Heating, cooling and lighting systems in homes and businesses also include such sensors.

Widespread broadband access and ever faster wireless networks reduces the need for networked meters.

Pressure is coming from more profound changes to the power distribution network. This is changing shape and becoming far more distributed.

Where once power production was centralised in massive central power stations it is now happening on roofs all around the country.

Government subsidies and feed-in tariffs helped push massive growth in solar electric production in the UK from just 12 megawatts in 2006 to 11,642 megawatts last year.

As increasing numbers of microgenerators, whether solar or wind, join the network so the need for traditional meters, however smart, is reduced.

Storage technology is also improving which is also changing how the network functions with more power being used very close to where it is produced.

The future power distribution network will include a variety of energy sources and the need to control and monitor an increasing range of equipment for generating, storing and using that energy.

If micro generation continues to grow then business models will change too. Dealing with fluctuating electricity generation might mean power providers controlling supply – reducing heat or turning off fridges for short periods to regulate demand for instance. Electricity might be provided on an unmetered basis like telecoms and internet access.

All these changes are putting pressure on smart meters. This network will need data and two way controls rather than just straight measurement. This means we need a smart network not just smart meters.

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