Smart Grid and Smart Home: you’re joking, right?

Home solar and battery graph

As the Australian Energy Market Commission (AMEC) travels back to the future in a bid to redirect the floundering competitive roll-out of smart meters in Australia (Directions Paper), it continues to amaze how far away Australia is from a genuinely smart, fit-for-purpose 21st century electricity grid.

GAVIN DIETZ: WATTWATCHERS CEO

Based on financial payback calculations, I’m not a home battery convert by any stretch. But I’m conflicted.

I’ve always been a keen home technologist and I love to try solutions of all kinds for myself.

So, a couple of months ago, in August, I had an amazing experience: my first battery + solar installation. 

It was well organised through one of Wattwatchers’ customers, Clipsal Solar, and the whole experience was excellent: on time, on budget, with a great team on-site!

I paid close attention to the process. And now I get to observe and play around with my new toy, plus learn a bit more about being nearly but not quite ‘off the grid’.

The 6.6kW solar system and 10kWh LG battery package was designed to pretty much take my place off grid, with a high (90 percentile) consumption to generation ratio. As can be seen in the screenshot below, depicting a typical sunny day. 

Solar plus battery use has pretty much eradicated my consumption from the grid, and we are still capable of exporting to the grid on great sunny days.

The house is in a regional area outside of Sydney, in a bushfire-prone farming valley surrounded by forest. So the battery also provides two power points where I can plug in emergency loads such as lights, WiFi router and a water pump – even if the main grid is blacked out.

So far so good, you’d think? Until you get to the bit where my home energy system attaches to the main electricity grid.

Smart meter waiting game

Within 24 hours, my energy retailer was informed that solar had been connected.

This in turn initiated the replacement of my 1940s-style, spinning-disk meter with a so-called ‘smart meter’ to allow export capability back to the grid.

It should be noted my property doesn’t have any mobile coverage, which is not uncommon for large parts of rural Australia, even when located close to a major city like my place.

Without this digital meter, able to measure and provide approved billing data for both my imports from the grid, and my solar-generated exports to it, I can’t get paid for my homegrown electrons.

Yet, two months on, I still haven’t had my old meter replaced, nor even been given a time for when the new one will be installed.  

The ironic thing is they are expecting mobile coverage to be able to read the meter remotely – supposedly one of the main benefits of a smart meter roll-out is eliminating manual reading visits, as well as estimate bills.

In my case, this makes no sense at all.  

I cannot own the first property in Australia with no mobile coverage. So what is done elsewhere?  

Furthermore, our place is only one of 22 houses in the valley, of which (at an educated guess) most are on the old-style mechanical meters. This means a meter reader is still travelling past my place every three months or so (don’t get me started on estimated vs actual bills!).

In the meantime, my already-tenuous business case for the solar + battery system slowly flies out the window as my electrons rapidly die and wither on the vine, and for this we pay a hefty daily charge for network services.

I’m feeling very much on the edge of the grid, here. You can see why I take a pinch of salt every time I hear energy industry people talking about their deep commitment to a ‘customer-centric’ energy future.

Trying to get smarter behind the meter

It’s one thing to have my ‘nearly off the grid’ home up and running  now, even if I can’t get paid for the electricity I export until the smart meter finally arrives.

But my home won’t be anywhere near as smart as I want without some more work behind the meter.

A week or so ago, bands of storms swept through the greater Sydney region. As usual in our valley, the storm impacts took out the power for over nine hours.

As a solar and battery user now, I don’t mind being blacked out so much. I can still run a power cable out to a portable LED light, and keep WiFi up; or just light a candle when it gets dark, sit under a tree, read a book and enjoy the time off-grid.

Later, unfortunately, I realised the power loss had an impact that was costing me money even after the grid service was restored to my place and the valley.

I normally run my pool pump for free under my generous solar curve. The benefit is that I get free pool filtering, whenever the sun is shining.

With a multiple-hour power loss, my ‘dumb’ pool timer switched off and when it regained power it assumed the time had not changed and started running the pump again, but this time in peak energy usage hours without solar.  

Now having a clean and swimmable pool was costing me real money, and in addition was draining my battery faster – and, in turn, completely changing my energy consumption and energy cost curve.

So what to do to fix this?  

Firstly, very few major appliances come with any sorting of consumer technology smarts, so there is always a need for third-party switching and control.  

In this case, a simple upgrade to a cloud-based, ‘HomeKit-enabled’ smart plug will be used – which always syncs with real-time, hence not creating this negative shift in consumption again.

Alternatively, the Wattwatchers circuit-switching unit could also be used for this type of pool pump, providing the cloud connection, as the pump itself has little or no electronic smarts.

As you can see, even when the energy company does finally get around to installing my smart meter – that won’t be able to communicate without a cellular signal – I’ll still need to do more technology tinkering to create the smart energy home I’m endlessly seeking.

Gavin Dietz joined Wattwatchers as CEO in 2016. He is a former global Chief Information Officer for Landis & Gyr, the world’s largest smart meter manufacturer.