Smart meters will play a central role in delivering an energy infrastructure fit for the 21st Century, says Stephen Cunningham. In this week's Green Room, he argues why he believes the technology will help deliver the necessary carbon saving needed to prevent dangerous climate change.
If time waits for no man, climate change is even more ruthless.
Yet people in the UK, along with much of Europe, have been waiting for years for the intentions of government and its increasingly ambitious carbon reduction targets to be reinforced with decisive implementation plans.
Last week, that wait came to an end - at least in the field of energy management.
Industry has finally been given the backing it needs to unlock the potential of "smart metering".
And it has been a long wait. The idea was first mooted back in 1994 as a relatively "easy win" in addressing climate change, and it later featured in Gordon Brown's 2006 Budget speech.
The fact that the UK government's full support for a national roll-out of smart meters to all UK homes and businesses has been a long time in coming should not detract from the enormity of this decision.
The announcement by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) represents an important turning point in UK energy policy.
It heralds the advent of the "smart grid" - a potentially more profound step than North Sea gasification, according to many commentators.
The energy industry now has both the directive and core information it needs to prepare for the work that will make the UK a worldwide pioneer in smart energy management.
Industry and government must work hand-in-hand to seize the momentum and develop both the standards and delivery network required to meet the ambitious target of fitting 49 million meters in 27 million homes in little more than a decade.
21st Century solution
"Smart" electricity and gas meters provide utilities with a secure, two-way flow of data that allows them to manage demand, protect the distribution network and ultimately optimise energy generation.
Consumers benefit from being able to manage and reduce their energy bills, and, crucially, their household's carbon footprint.
Put simply, what you can measure, you can manage.
On the whole, the measurement of energy in the UK relies on a system introduced in the 19th Century, whereby the meter calculates a customer's aggregated energy use each quarter, or in many cases across an entire year.
Smart meters, however, provide highly accurate usage and cost information directly to portable in-home display units, providing consumers with up-to-the-minute information about their energy consumption and how much it is costing them.
By clearly communicating the cost of every day actions, such as boiling the kettle, consumers are empowered to act.
The impact of the UK government's decision should not be underestimated.
To achieve the EU's noble vision of a 20% increase in energy efficiency, a 20% increase in renewables and a 20% reduction of CO2 emissions - all within 12 years - will be a massive undertaking.
Smart metering is one of several essential ingredients in the realisation of this vision.
In itself, it is by no means a panacea, but none of the "20:20:20" goals are remotely achievable without a functional smart grid underpinned by its prerequisite: a smart meter infrastructure.
Last month, the European Parliament recognised this with a definitive mandate for the roll-out of smart meters in all EU Member States by 2022, achieving 80% coverage by 2020.
The UK now has the opportunity to lead the pack.
No-one can be sure of the precise energy savings that a nationwide smart meter deployment will bring the UK because the transformation is unprecedented.
However, we can be absolutely confident that the savings achieved will be substantial.
Research published last year in Finland found that in-house displays brought average energy savings of 10.3%.
Another 2008 paper, from the EU Commission, estimates 7% energy savings for households and 10% for businesses. More conservative estimates point to between 3% and 4% - a valuable prize nonetheless.
But the advantages are by no means limited to the empowerment of the homeowner in the fight to reduce carbon or the end of estimated billing.
As energy prices spike, the search for energy security intensifies and fears of "brown outs" grow, smart meters will play a crucial role in the move towards renewables.
The current European grid was built mainly after World War II and was designed for stability.
Times have changed - not least with the exponential proliferation of energy-hungry consumer devices and the advent of the electric vehicle.
Utilities companies agree that the grid itself must shift with the times and move into the digital era.
Smart metering provides utilities with the information and flexibility required to manage intermittent electricity supply from renewable and micro-generation sources, allowing them to balance this with more traditional, consistent supply.
If the UK is to truly embrace alternative energy, smart meters will be an essential part of the process.
Although the task ahead for the UK is huge, the goal is absolutely fundamental for our society and its long-term value is of historic proportions.
Real encouragement can be taken from a growing pool of ground-breaking European smart energy projects, which are delivering tangible benefits in the here and now.
These include the 30 million smart meters recently deployed across Italy, and EDF's trials in France which could lead to the deployment of 35 million meters.
The UK is now set to become even smarter.
Stephen Cunningham is UK & Ireland chief executive for Landis+Gyr, the world's largest smart meter system manufacturer
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Stephen Cunningham? Are smart meters vital in our battle against climate change? Will they help households reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprints? Or should we be focusing our efforts on clean energy generation sources?
While I welcome any initiative to reduce my energy consumption and save money from my pension, I'm amazed and disappointed that more isn't already being done in the 21st century to cut back on blatant energy misuse or extravagance. I use Economy 7 tariff for my only form of heating specified by developers of my new retirement flat - night storage heaters. They cannot maintain an even ambient temperature, overheating by day and exhausted by evening. The manufacturer doesn't want to know and advertises them as "Economical, Controllable and Clean" Also my building has 60 bright lights burning in communal areas 24/7. The cost is appalling and the developer claims it's for "Health and Safety" All the appropriate regulations state is that these areas should be "adequately lit" I economize at every opportunity but am faced with these built-in examples of energy abuse - which I still have to pay for.
Is there an Energy Ombudsman?
Terry, Bristol UK
Our province is introducing smart meters. What is really good about them is that they can do a two way feed. So if you produce power from a turbine or solar source and don't use it all you can feed the excess back into the grid. We will be getting much more back per KW that we pay.
Elaine Mudge, Georgetown, Ontario, Canada
Let's not miss the chance. As well as Electricity and Gas being monitored we should add Water meter data collection and use added, with the ability to add any other fuel/resources such as domestic fuel oil.
Let's not lock down the system.
I have basic smart reader - the type you install yourself and have saved well over 20% in energy costs.
Richard Clarke, Godstone
I think that this new "smart meter" is a great idea. If people can see how much energy they are consuming, it would be alot easier to cut out the uneccessary electricity usage arond the house. I hope this makes it to the states.
Kevin, Tampa, Florida
We should focus on optimising use of already installed renewable sources of electricity, so that we can store the energy for when we need it. The best way of storing energy is to create a fuel. Electrolysers can convert water to a fuel, hydrogen, using renewable electricity. This is key. Hydrogen is compatible with today's engines and infrastructure. Investment should focus on electrolysers, the common denominator solution addressing: energy security, fuel price volatility, climate change, transport, food security etc..etc..
Charles Purkess , Malmesbury
The only limited impact this idea can have is if the "spot price" of the electricity can be observed on the front of the meter by the consumer.
They can then opt to buy their juice when the price suits them, and thereby provide some faint linkage between the suppliers and consumers.
However, the fact remains; Joe Householder could have opened the cupboard under the stairs and watched the little wheel go round any time he wanted over the last . . oh, 50 years or so. They have kind of lost interest in doing that.
Why should they start now ?
Unless the power companies give them an incentive, like a dynamic price to chase, then most householders will get bored with the dial on the 'lecy meter, and go and watch the Tely instead.
Steven Walker, Penzance
I like the idea of focusing on a cleaner generation but I think this will help (smart meters). Great work UK. I will tell my grade 3 students all about you tomorrow. Thanks
Valerie Rippon, Bangkok, Thailand and Nanaimo, Canada
The use of smart meters could really benefit some uses in monitoring, and subsequently cutting down, energy usage. However, we have to be careful to not rely on some gadget to save us from our laziness. We need big decisions and big actions, not a nice shiny box that sits in the corner and saves us all.
Smart meters sound interesting, but look like a small part of what needs to be done. I would like to see more freedom for people to generate their own electricity and not pay silly taxes (as apparently is the case if one uses a water wheel), and to integrate this technology to their home and their smart meter. Less bureaucracy, more action.
I would welcome a smart meter. This article has pointed out to me that I have very little idea of my energy consumption even though I use a prepayment meter (I am finding it hard to recall what I have spent in the last six months). If my moment by moment usage were displayed to me, I believe I would take very much more care not to abuse energy consumption.
Smart metering will help reduce power usage . I was comfortable paying SDG80.00 per month using the old end of the month manual billing system . I managed to reduce it to SDG60.00 now with the a new pay as you go system introduced two years ago . The meters show power usage in real-time .
F. W. Ssenkungo, Khartoum / Sudan
A wonderful idea, smart meters. They are being deployed in parts of the U.S. right now, at least meters with remote monitoring.
I doubt it will reduce overall energy consumption since very little energy usage in most homes is actually optional.
But real time monitoring of my water usage would have saved me hundreds of dollars last winter when a water pipe broke under my house and I didn't discover it until it had run for weeks and my water bill for the month was over five hundred dollars...
They will also cut down on the issues with estimated bills that are currently sent during the winter when the actual meters are buried in snow and can't be read.
Walter Moore, Indianapolis U.S.A
Smart meters! Great idea. I look forward to having one, so I can more easily see how much or how little energy various appliances are using. They'd DEFINITELY help me save energy. The government could do with spending more on helping people insulate their homes though, and not just those who are in fuel poverty.
Ross Marnie, Glasgow, Scotland
Smart meters will be undeniably beneficial. The idea of being able to monitor your own usage is both a goodw way to save money and the environment, as well as giving the owner the peace of mind that additional control over your own expenses brings. Every time we recieve an electricity bill, it's like a lottery and we have no idea how much the bill is going to be.
I think electricity and water, and some poorly managed mobile broadband packages, are the only major areas in life now that you can't easily predict or see the current cost of your bill.
If anything, this is a necessary step to the future of the electricity grid.
Looking forwards to seeing a smart meter in my home.
C Alexander, Coventry, UK
It is good to get smart meters on electricity, water etc. But let's just hope this is more than just hollow political talk and action will happen quickly. We are far too slow in this country to make changes; see the latest wind power farm, 7 years to make decision and 3 to build it. At this rate UK is never going to get renewable energy as significant source of power
lixxie Scot, glasgow
The real truth is solar, wind, and water energy sources eliminate wasteful wires. The smartest grid would be one without wires such as solar power exchanging power with other solar panels. Smart meters are a waste of time, labor, money, and resources used to make the wire. Wake-up people, stop allowing greedy energy companies to tell you, you need a smart grid. What we need is smart people to realize we don't need these greedy corporations holding on to old technology to fill their pockets on the backs of civilization. This can only support more coal burning further polluting our environment. Solar energy is safe for everyone, including the greedy corporations that don't know any better.
They have to take extensive measure with or without the meter, it may give a guideline, but it won't start a whole new green way of living.
Diana , United States
I don't want to say that smart meters are a bad idea, but they are more gadget than planet saver. If you have the odd billion to throw around, find a way to provide people with the energy they want without too much reliance on external sources, and ideally without upsetting the climate too much. Get wave power sorted, or stop the environmentalists blocking tidal generation, and keep our largest carbon-free source of energy (nuclear) going. And aim for even bigger win-wins like carbon capture so we can use our vast coal reserves with a clean conscience, or fusion power even though the environmentalists hate that too.
Ian Nartowicz, Stockport, England
I don't think it will work.
It looks good, and takes the pressure off Government transferring the onus on to the consumer. Companies will just up their service charges to make up their losses in revenue.
There are no real measures to 'help' the consumer either. Up and down the country more people are forced to live in flats that don't even have use of a washing line- instead using inefficient wasteful tumble dryers.
I tried to submit ideas to defra seera seeda and others about improving current designs using dew-point optimisation, but surprisingly no one really cares.
Dean Mansfield, Aldershot, UK
Smart meters are essential to help reduce energy consumption in a fairly painless way. I bought one a year ago and it has already paid for itself three times over. My electricity consumption this year is down by over 15%. Awareness of exactly how you use energy in the home is key, and this gadget enables you to focus on individual appliances. It becomes obvious which ones are the most costly in terms of energy consumption, and you can then control your usage most effectively.
Derek Power, Uxbridge, UK
I think metres would do well to emphasis the cost of energy to the younger generation, especially in family units. These people aren't paying the bill and therefore do not have a full appreciation.
By seeing the direct result of turning a tv from on to standby to off it will serve to make this generation (one that is in a good position to make a large difference) more aware of cost and usage that they themselves are causing. Great idea.
Being an engineer has opened my eyes to the fact that humans are creatures of habit who don't Like change. Providing smart metering may help those who have a genuine belief in providing facilities to empower people to make a difference, however the they are in a minority, the majority will see it as nothing more than a hassell to have them installed and never use them. If you want real results increase the cost energy and hit people where it hurts - In the pocket!
James Walford, Manchester
"By clearly communicating the cost of everyday actions, such as boiling the kettle, consumers are empowered to act." Oh yeah? You might just as well write "Knowing they would be transported or hanged for sheep stealing empowered criminals to stop." It's rubbish. It doesn't work like that. It only makes sense if you have an *option* ... an *alternative* course of action. What are mine? Gas here is propane, tanker delivery, *very* expensive compared with natural gas. And we all know about electricity. I work from home. To keep the gas central heating on for 12 hours a day would cost over £2500 a year. What is my 'cheaper' option? Nada. I run the CH for four hours a day, 'top up' with a fan heater and wear four layers, a hat, and mittens. Knowledge does not enable me to save money: wearing layers does. Stop spouting these clichés and do some real world analysis. It's what I pay the licence fee for.
I rather hope the UK wakes up to the reality of the huge energy that is wasted and the cost to individuals and their families. It could well be that Smart meters are the key that sparks an awareness of other waste and a further questioning of 'why do we do this?' and not the common reaction of 'Energy saving reduces my standard of living'.
Gordon, Copenhagen, Denmark
What about the privacy issues though? My utility company would also benefit from very detailed information on for example at what time I go to bed and get up again.
There is no reason for the utility company to have data this detailed: no individual household is going to make a difference large enough to matter for managing the network. These systems should be changed to keep all detailed data on individual usage private. No two-way communicating meters that transmit all the details of our lives, and one number per year is quite enough for billing purposes.
If the utilities want to manage their grid, they can use separate meters that operate on a coarser (e.g. ward) level to get the data they need without violating our privacy.
The Dutch Eerste Kamer (our equivalent to the House of Lords) recently voted down a proposal for making similar smart meters compulsory in The Netherlands, precisely because it would violate the people's privacy. The UK should do the same, at least until the system has been improved.
Lourens Veen, Haarlem, The Netherlands
How much additional energy does the running of these smart meters require? The display units themselves, then the constant transmission of energy usage from every household and the in-house systems from the utilities companies accumulating the energy usage values and calculating customer's bills. And if customer's have online accounts, how much more frequently will they be switching on their computer to watch and monitor their daily energy usage.
I have a feeling that the small reductions consumers may make will be offset by the implementation of this technology overall, and therefore not reducing the amount of energy that is used on a national scale.
Like Roy says, we're treating the symptoms, not the source. Focus on cleaner energy generation.
Helen, Leamington Spa, UK
The government have underestimated the cost of this project.As most consumers are already aware of the costs involved in using both Gas and Electrical appliances the project will probably not save the energy it will take to manufacture and distribute and install the meters.
jm cox, preston england
Most people have an expectation of the size of the bill they should be paying and only check the meter reading if it's too far out. This will enable more accurate billing but little else. Domestic energy consumption accounts for about 1/6th of the total and about 80% of that is used in space heating and water heating. Changing to more efficient space and water heating (eg. gas or better still solar or heat pump)will have far more effect than a 'smart meter'
I for one am very interested in Smart meters, they should make it easier for Micro generation schemes to be monitored as well as a live readout of power consumption.
Peter Handley, Eastbourne UK
At the moment, very few householders have any idea which appliances are most energy intensive, how much electricity or gas they use each week, or how this compares to the national average. So smart meters can certainly help to raise home energy awareness from the present abominably low level.
That said, we can't afford to lose sight of the other challenges, and developing sustainable sources of energy must also be a priority.
Ben Murray, Edinburgh, Scotland
I doubt they will help reduce energy consumption. Most people are aware of what they use by the size of the bill.More likely that they will increase the bill.Much better to focus on cleaner generation.
Roy, Scunthorpe, UK