Main image: Incorrect readings of older style electricity meters have resulted in wildly high bills, up to 100 times more then what they should be.

The Age / Cole Latimer / 15 March

Smart meters are meant to make life easier for consumers by giving them up-to-date information about their electricity use and preventing energy companies from coming up with costly over-estimates of consumption.

So why have they got a bad name in some states such as Victoria?

The short answer is: It’s not the technology itself, but the way it has been rolled out into households. Smart meters are digital meters that provide accurate data on electricity consumption as it happens, differing from the older ‘accumulation meters’ which measured approximate total electricity use over a longer period.

The almost real-time data of electricity flow allows Australians to take an active part in their energy consumption and control their usage, helping consumers to change their behaviour for the better.

 

They show, via an app or online, how much electricity you are using and what it costs as well as the time energy is being used, allowing for discounts to be applied if less power is used during peak time. They don’t cover gas yet.

Main pillars of energy transition

The technology is being championed as one of the main pillars of Australia’s energy transition to a smart network, allowing for greater integration of solar rooftop generation and letting people go off the grid, known as ‘behind the meter technology’.

The UK has been transitioning to smart meters for a number of years, Europe is rapidly taking them up, while in Japan there has been an average of one million smart meters being installed every three months. But Australia is behind the curve. There are roughly 3.3 million smart meters installed across the national electricity market,  out of 13.6 million meters in total, accounting for less than a quarter of all electricity meters.

One of the problems in Australia was a disastrous $2.24 billion rollout of 2.8 million smart meters in Victoria in recent years, which raised concerns that consumers would actually pay more during peak demand times due to the ability to track their usage.

They believed retailers would track usage and slug them higher prices as the need for energy reached peak levels.

Yet despite these fears some industry players think the Victorian rollout will eventually be judged a success.

‘First mover advantage’

In fact, Energy Networks Australia said this rollout has put Victoria ahead of the rest of the nation.

“Metering charges have reduced dramatically and the technology has begun to offer Victorian energy customers a distinct ‘first mover advantage’, as the benefits of advanced metering now flow through,” an ENA spokeswoman said.

The uptake in other states across the NEM has been significantly slower, with almost 400,000 smart meter users in NSW, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania installing them as part of a wider solar rooftop panel installation if owners want to sell energy back into the grid. By comparison, Western Australian has more than 47,000 smart meters installed.

“The rate of installation has been low – around 3500 – in the months since December 2017, which is in line with expectations,” an EnergyAustralia spokeswoman said.

Consumers hitting themselves in the hip pocket

Consumer inertia seems to be the main culprit. This inertia to upgrade to more effective metering is the same that stopped many changing electricity retailers for better deals, forgoing lower power bills and hitting themselves in the hip pocket.

A University of Melbourne report said it was not enough that smart meters were an option, “consumers must be actively encouraged to access and utilise these tools and services for their own benefit”.

New legislation was introduced in December 2017 to help this transition to more accurate meter readings.

The recent Power of Choice rules require all new or replacement meters to be smart meters installed by an energy retailer – rather than the network or distributor – and these newer meters to be read by the retailer rather than the distributor, streamlining the process and providing an easily accessible record of usage.

One major retailer said they were working to support Power of Choice, “to ensure the new market systems and processes are stable before larger digital meter rollout planning proceeds”.

Digital meters can also save consumers money by helping to avoid the issue of estimated meter reading – an inaccurate guess used when meters are inaccessible – which often leads to higher bill dues to the fact they can’t be remotely recorded, one retailer said.

‘Enjoy better control’

“Customers with digital meters will be able to gain access to monthly billing, avoid estimated reads and enjoy better control over their electricity usage with more frequent data,” an Origin spokesman said.

This was echoed by EnergyAustralia, which is also participating in the rollout.

“Customers with smart meters in most cases can avoid estimated meter readings because the data is sent straight to the retailer. Faults and supply issues can also be detected early,” an EnergyAustralia spokeswoman said.

A Melbourne bar owner was recently slugged with a bill around 800 times above their actual usage, due to an erroneous estimated reading.

This issue couldn’t be rectified by the owner sending in legitimate photos due to the lack of standardisation around customer readings on the older ‘accumulation’ style meters, which require meter readers roaming the streets with full access to people’s meters – whether they be at the side of a house in the backyard – to check customer usage, a problem avoided by smart meters remote capabilities.

Smart meters will also speed up connections, as they allow for users to be remotely connected, cutting the need for someone to physically access the property.