We need smart meter boxes more than smart meters

Old electricity meter box in Australia

Homes and businesses now have unprecedented opportunities for generating, storing and optimising their electricity. But are legacy industry players and many policymakers still looking in the rear vision mirror for solutions? Especially when it comes to the technologies and enabling infrastructure that will turbocharge delivery of the clean energy transition.

GAVIN DIETZ: WATTWATCHERS CEO

If I had to design a better energy future for my home right now, I’d treat my electricity meter box as a critical piece of infrastructure.

Often overlooked, the meter box or switchboard is where I’d want to concentrate my control of vital services so my family can live a better life in the technological age.

Obviously for electricity supply, some of which I would continue to buy from the main grid, my ultimate back-up, but much of which my family would be generating from our own rooftop solar system.

We might have a home battery in the garage as well, if the cost-to-benefit stacks up, and most likely our future cars will be electric-powered – batteries on wheels!

But the meter box isn’t where our main electricity system rule-maker, the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), is looking right now. It’s still pushing to get more utility smart meters installed, even while confessing they are ‘not new’ technology.

Yet in a truly smart energy future, the utility meter will be nowhere near the smartest thing in the box.

Re-thinking my meter box

My smart meter box infrastructure would be tasked to do so much more than count electrons while keeping us safe from getting electrocuted.

There’d be a critical services circuit so I could cost-effectively invest in a small home storage system to keep our fridge, microwave oven, NBN, wi-fi and some strategic lighting running even in a blackout at night.

I’d have state-of-the-art surge protection and voltage optimisation to protect expensive and often-sensitive home electronics, especially in Covid times when work equipment is now at home. 

I’d also design-in supply capacity and board space for rooftop solar, battery systems, electric vehicles and more.

And I’d have smart switches to remotely control major loads – such as hot water, electric vehicle charging, air conditioning and pool pumps – whether I was switching them on or off, or up and down myself, or allowing a third-party service provider to do it for me (in which case I’d have an override switch as well).

Connecting to the cloud

To facilitate my choice of automation and other services, I’d want a reliable uplink to the internet that is integrated with the home’s electricity infrastructure and data.

And, crucially, I would never put all of this under the control of a single energy company via its smart meter, which in industry-speak also can be called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). 

Clearly this is a naming over-reach for a technology that’s already two decades old, significantly pre-dating smartphones, and that is designed to comply with national measurement requirements that date back to 1960, before decimal currency.

Given my day job as CEO of Wattwatchers, I’d be using our company’s Energy IoT solutions to enable a lot of the functionality I want, including real-time visibility of everything. 

But there will be many technology brands in the space, and the key thing for this increasingly distributed and communications-dependent infrastructure is to make it easy to integrate devices and data for seamless interoperability using the latest cloud tools. 

Technologically speaking, there’s arguably no need at all for the utility meter. Secure data for billing could be an output from consumer equipment in the smart meter box, although gaining acceptance for this from the legacy industry is a big ask. 

This isn’t just about my place

The same goes if I were working on the nation’s energy future, rather than my home’s.

It’s not just about our home power infrastructure now. Meter boxes are core lifestyle infrastructure, with massive implications for how we operate day-to-day, and they intersect with grid stability, home automation, security, mobility, information and telecommunications technologies, financial well-being, health and more.

We hear so much talk these days about making the energy system ‘customer centric’.

That’s supposed to mean designing and running it for the benefit of users rather than suppliers.

But the DNA of the traditional energy system is anything but user friendly. 

As a highly-regulated ‘essential service’, the electricity industry has long thought of itself as being special. You know, ‘we keep the lights on’ and that kind of grand rhetoric.

Special even when compared with other complex essential social and economic infrastructures like telecommunications, transport and financial services.

It’s not true, of course. But try telling them that.

The old meter box (left) still had antiquated ceramic safety fuses when it was upgraded in 2019, ahead of rooftop solar being installed. While still far from being a thing of beauty, the upgraded version is safer and better, with clear delineation between the customer’s space and that reserved for the electricity service. And yes, there’s now a not-so-smart digital meter to allow solar exports to be metered as well as grid imports.

A view of the future from the meter box

Let’s go back to the home meter box or distribution board.

This defines the critical ‘last metre’ of the electricity grid, where the industry meets you and me. It houses both the energy utility’s meter for billing users and reconciling with the market, and also key consumer equipment to manage electricity safely and effectively on site.

For two decades the industry has mainly ignored the meter box while it focuses on its vision for the digitalised future of electricity, the so-called smart meter.

In this vision, energy retailers ‘own’ the right to supply grid power for everything operating behind the billing meters that they install. 

In an Orwellian twist, the key rule-maker for the National Electricity Market (NEM), the AEMC has called its core metering policy ‘Power of Choice’, although its technologically obsolete and anything but empowering for consumers. 

The consumer experience of electricity is warped

From a customer’s point of view, the utility meter – whether it’s a digital ‘smart meter’, or one of the old-style analogue ones still spinning away in over half of Australia’s 10 million homes and small businesses – is more of a tax collection device than a consumer interface.

It’s well-documented through market research that many householders regard receiving their monthly or quarterly power bill as being akin to paying tax.

They have little choice about it. The bill arrives in arrears, after the electricity has already been used. Frequently it is only estimated, but you are expected to pay it anyway.

I’ve previously described this as mass Stockholm syndrome. An increasingly-bizarre situation where consumers are trapped in the rules of a system they struggle to understand, and can’t relate to in similar ways to most of the other services and ‘apps’ in their technology-enabled lives.

The energy company, which controls all of the key data, makes its money by selling users as much electricity as possible. If you change energy companies, with rare exceptions you’ll get a different supplier’s name on the bill but much the same service.

For consumers to maximise their savings, they need to use as little of the energy company’s electricity as possible. But absent further investment on their own tab, most householders have to rely on the supplier-generated bills to manage this – in hindsight!

A better future demands better solutions

Australians will need to spend billions of dollars, I estimate easily $50-100 billion over the next 5-10 years, on upgrading their meter boxes and other household or business electricity infrastructure to reap the greatest benefits from the energy transition.

Personally, I just can’t see the solutions we need coming from legacy energy companies with their obsolete tech, old-style thinking and attitudes to customers, and outdated business models.

I am more hopeful about genuinely innovative players like Tesla, with its global convergence strategy for electrification of homes and businesses, vehicles and grids; and French-headquartered energy technology giant Schneider, with its new data-driven, going-global play for distributed energy resources (DER), anchored by Clipsal Solar in Australia and its Pulse app; and, of course, Wattwatchers itself, which you’ll find ‘inside’ more and more new and retrofitted meter boxes.

There are even some green shoots on the market and regulatory front. A few years ago the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) scored brilliantly with its international hire of New Yorker Audrey Zibelman, before she was snapped up by X, Google’s ‘moonshot factory’. Her successor, Daniel Westerman, an Australian who spent a lot of time in the UK energy sector, is showing positive signs of building on Zibelman’s transformative early work.

Equally importantly, there are fresh and inspiring advocacy voices coming forward too, like Australian-born Dr Saul Griffith, the successful Silicon Valley inventor and entrepreneur who has come home to NSW and is extending his ‘Rewiring America’ and ‘electrify everything’ thinking to Australia’s energy future as well (Castles and Cars – Rewiring Australia).

Apart from the Wattwatchers technology roadmap, which is the one main thing I can influence apart from my own home, what would really excite me in the quest to reinvent the meter box, and make it truly smart-home integrated, is knowing the answer to this question: What will Apple do?

Gavin Dietz has been CEO of Wattwatchers since 2016. He previously was Global Chief Information Officer with Landis+Gyr, the world’s largest smart meter manufacturing company.