How Smart is a Smart Meter

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Smart Meters in Australia, and specifically the smart meter in NSW, has been featured highly in the media recently. There are a lot of questions about how their introduction will affect consumers and how the smart meter and solar panels will work together. Rolled out already in Victoria, the smart meter is now coming to New South Wales with promises to “revolutionise electricity” and “change the way we think about energy.” Sifting through the hype can be a challenging task to understand exactly what the smart meter does and how we as consumers can best take advantage of its features.

Undoubtedly, smart meters are a major improvement over the old analogue metering system. In these modern times, the idea of collecting energy use data once a quarter by physically visiting the home is a practice that seems to be more suited to an era of cords on a telephone and cassettes in a Walkman. The ability to accurately monitor and measure energy use digitally and remotely is an obvious requirement for the power company, and once that data is collected, there are other applications for its use that go well beyond just sending the customer the bill.

But just how “smart” is the smart meter?

It is important to remember, that the meter itself is not very smart at all. The meter is just a tool (an interval meter with a 3G or remote communications connection) that only performs just a few simple functions:

  • It measures total energy use in the house and then reports the number back to the power company.
  • If there is a solar system on the roof and electricity is being generated, then the smart meter can also measure how much energy is flowing in the opposite direction, back into the grid.
  • The smart meter will also perform a net metering function which will allow solar power generated at the home to be used at the home before any excess gets sent back into the grid.
Accuracy

The term “real-time measurement” gets used often when discussing smart meters, but is not quite accurate. The smart meter measures electricity continuously, but typically only records the electricity consumed or produced once every half an hour, and then only sends these half hourly measurements to your power company a couple of times per day. While this interval is much closer to real time than the previous method of reading the meter once every three months, a six hour delay and 30 minute block  won’t provide the information you need  to turn on an appliance and observe the change instantly. This makes it much more difficult to pin point spikes in energy use and accurately adjust consumption habits with production cycles.

Interpreting the data

Once the smart meter has performed its functions, its job is then done. It is up the users – the power company and/or the homeowner – to translate the information into something useful in order to realise the myriad of benefits promised by the smart meter.

It is not the smart meter itself that will save energy resulting in lower energy bills. The information gathered and communicated by the meter has to be interpreted, actions taken and behaviour modified in order to use less energy and save money.

When combined with additional software or other information displaying devices, the homeowner can better process the information obtained by the smart meter, and from there can make adjustments to how they use their energy in the home.

There are increasingly more and more applications coming on the market, some offered by the power companies and some by third party businesses to help homeowners organise and analyse the data coming from the smart meter. While some of these applications will indeed provide users with valuable information, the basic level of data collected will have its limitations.

Smart meter and solar panels

For solar users, it is important to understand exactly what the smart meter can and cannot do.

As previously mentioned, a new smart meter (or any net meter) will enable net metering functionality, which will allow you to use the valuable energy you generate at your house before exporting excess back to the grid. Called “self-consumption,” this is very important to the solar user since the electricity sold back to the grid is only a fraction of its worth, and it is much more economical to use that energy while it is still in the home.

The smart meter, unfortunately, is unable to tell users specifically how much power the solar system is generating. It can only measure a net position based on total electricity in vs electricity out. Because of the way net metering operates, the smart meter can’t distinguish or describe solar power generated onsite from power imported from the grid.

Smart meter + solar monitoring

In order to accurately understand how much power your solar system is generating, additional data must be collected from other sources such as a dedicated monitoring system. This information can be combined with consumption data to ensure that you are getting the most out of the electricity generated on site.

The smart meter will not be able to detect faults when the solar system is not working properly or determine how efficiently the system is operating. This is critical to know in order to maximise the potential of your solar investment – anything less than maximum efficiency translates into money lost.

According to Ausgrid data, more than half of Australia’s residential solar systems perform below the standard they’re supposed to. And even worse, about 14% of the country’s solar systems develop a major fault every year and stop working altogether. Most of these faults go undetected until home owners notice a change in the energy bill. Advanced solar monitoring can constantly diagnose the solar system for problems and recognise even slight drops in system performance from issues such as dust accumulation or an overgrown tree branch.

Interconnectivity

As our world becomes more and more connected, the ability to collect and communicate information between devices becomes the norm. Appliances, air conditioners, lighting are also developing the ability to share information, and together with the smart meter will be part of an overall system to manage energy efficiently in a home of the future.

Digitally measuring the energy use in and out of a house at the meter location is an obvious requirement and the smart meter becomes just a standard component in a larger ecosystem of technological applications.

Head to the How It Works page to see how the Solar Analytics Monitoring service can provide you with the accurate monitoring you need in conjunction with your smart meter.

Read more about Smart Meters here on the Solar Analytics Blog

 

Written for Solar Analytics Blog and originally published here.

 

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