Power to choose: raise a ‘digital’ to your energy utility and the regulatory system
On my watch: Murray Hogarth
What if you could choose your own energy meter, like you choose your smart phone? What if the device you pick is just as accurate, but much smaller and much smarter than your typical energy utility meter, showing real-time data over the internet? What if it helps you every day to save money off your electricity bill and cut carbon pollution too?
That would be the power to choose. You’d be empowered as a consumer, knowing a lot more about when and how electricity is being used in your home. In today's digital age, data is power, and with your own meter you could be in greater control of your energy.
You and your energy retailer could both see the same data, and its accuracy and security would be verified by digital authentication. With such data available in real-time, you could confidently pay your energy bills daily, weekly or in advance, instead of quarterly or monthly, and utilities would never just estimate bills as they frequently do now.
The technology to do this already is available. That’s what Wattwatchers makes, and our devices have been installed in thousands of Australian homes over the past year for unregulated ‘behind the utility meter’ services - for example to privately monitor rooftop solar performance, whole of home consumption, and major circuits including the connection with the main electricity grid.
But, and this is a big but, the energy regulatory system in Australia won’t allow you to make this choice to have your own, technologically superior meter for the heavily regulated billing function. Which is strange because the biggest theme for our energy regulators in recent years is actually consumer empowerment.
They call it Power of Choice. Unfortunately, however, that’s wishful thinking if not outright misrepresentation.
Far from real choice for consumers, the regulatory system actually propagates ongoing control by the most powerful vested interests in the the energy industry itself, the big retailers, the private and government-owned distributors, the metering services companies and the multinational meter manufacturers that dominate the market.
If you really did have the power of choice, you could make sure your meter has state-of-the-art technology, and that its intelligent functionality is designed and tasked to support you to save electricity every day. You also might want to help the environment, and it would assist with that too.
Traditional utilities won't do any of this in a meaningful way because they are conflicted. They make money when they sell you more electricity, and the functionality they value in a meter is things that allow them to supply and bill you at lower cost to their business (like over-the-air reading of meters and the ability to remotely disconnect and reconnect customers).
Being digitally out of date goes with the territory for the closed world of the traditional industry and its regulators.
The official standard for energy metering devices in Australia is enshrined in the National Measurement Act from 1960, formulated over half a century ago, which even predates the move to decimal currency in 1966 and metric rather than imperial measurement from 1970.
Even now, when the transformational speed and dynamism of the digital era is here for all to see, the energy sector of the regulated and the regulators is persisting with the notion that it can plan a next generation of meters meant to last for 15 to 20 years. It’s a digital nonsense.
If today’s telecommunications were like the energy sector in technology uptake terms, we’d all still be on land lines with a single utility supplied and owned handset per household.
So how could this be fixed? Here are three priority actions:
Bring the national measurement standards into the 21st (digital) century.
Apply simple maximum specifications for the billing meter function, rather than the minimum specifications currently being pursued, and then allow contemporary technological market innovation creative space to add further value in terms of enhanced functionality. In the new energy operating environment, billing will be one of the dumber things that we’ll need data to deliver.
Incorporate an environmental imperative into the national electricity market rules to augment consumer empowerment. The potential for digital technology to deliver environmental benefits as well as socio-economic ones needs to be promoted, because consumer empowerment without environmental integrity leads to perverse outcomes (more on this another day).
When a utility chooses a householders’ meter, the customer still pays for it ... but the utility controls the customer’s energy data. When you think about it, that’s not fair. You can exercise choice to change utilities but you can’t escape the system as long as you stay on the grid. Consumers should have more power to choose, starting with a meter that empowers them rather than the utility.
*Murray Hogarth is Director of Communications and Community Networks for Sydney-based technology company Wattwatchers, which provides Internet of Things monitoring, communications and control solutions for energy. He is a long-time adviser and commentator on climate, energy and sustainability.