Gearing up the UK for the smart grid

Summary:Landis+Gyr's UK chief executive, Stephen Cunningham, talks to ZDNet UK about what challenges and opportunities lie ahead in upgrading the country's energy infrastructure to 'smart'

Landis+Gyr is one of the world's pre-eminent metering companies and, as such, is very active in smart metering, the technology that hooks up homes and businesses to data networks so as to better monitor and interpret energy usage.

This technology, seen by many as being key to achieving the European Union's '20-20-20' goal of reducing its energy consumption by 20 percent by the year 2020, using 1990 levels as the baseline, will replace standard electricity and gas meters with systems that let consumers understand and control their own consumption.

Landis+Gyr (L+G) has already rolled out first-generation smart meters in some areas, and is keen to get into the burgeoning UK market, which is likely to be the first to get a second-generation infrastructure. ZDNet UK spoke to the company's UK chief executive, Stephen Cunningham, to find out more about the risks and benefits of smart-metering technology.

Q: Where and how has smart metering technology been rolled out so far?
A: The US, Australia, the Nordics and Italy all have first-generation smart infrastructures, which are largely capable of reporting meter reads. For the US, the Nordics and Australia there's also a degree of very coarse load control, such as the ability to [remotely] switch off air-conditioning.

The UK and the rest of Europe are now looking at the second generation of smart metering, with a finer degree of customer control and including microgeneration. What customers will be able to do is balance the different types of energy they use in the house. Two-thirds of that is gas, used for heating, but that's an increasingly scarce resource, so smart metering will be intelligent enough to say: "At 5am we have wind power, so we'll heat with wind power". It's that level of intelligent control.

It's the same with solar — if it's a sunny day, you could heat water in the middle of the day and leave it to use later on. [Smart metering can also be used for] tracking and managing electric vehicles. Getting to 20-20-20 means we have to play across lots of different areas to optimise the system.

Most of this second-generation smart metering is still open for tender. Is L+G definitely lined up for any part of it yet?
We know we're going to do a substantial chunk with British Gas.

Will every home and business have a monitor, so people can see for themselves what energy they're using and when, and adjust their usage accordingly? The consumer group Which? has pointed out that, without a monitor, smart infrastructure is of limited use in changing consumer behaviour.
It's all at the prospectus stage, but it's really clear at the moment that every home will have an in-home display, unless the customer opts out. But even then, suppliers would still have to give you a display later if you ask.

The really big difference [between the second generation and existing smart monitors] is that none of these things today will tell you how much gas you're using. You'll see a display of combined usage. I agree with Which? that, without that display, the system's going to have minimal value until you get to full automation, by which I mean a new generation of white goods that automatically connects with the energy network.

What's the timescale on all this?
It's a challenging set of timescales. The government currently wants to start the rollout in 2013 — well, in 2012, but the central communications system won't be ready. So it's a staged start. If you could start in the mainstream at full tilt in 2013, it would be 67,000 homes [having smart meters installed] a week, full-tilt through to 2020. If you wanted to meet a 2018 target, it would be 85,000 homes a week. It's a massive logistical challenge.

The only things that will improve our chances of hitting a 2018 target is trying to make the 2010-2013 period shorter and more effective, to start earlier and in a more fluent fashion.

What would that take — more government subsidy?
No, this is all [energy] supplier-funded. For them, speed is of the essence. Making it happen more quickly is all about making decisions. We will be the first country to install a second-generation system, so [we have proposed] an open specification. Rather than waiting until 2011 to define the specification, we'll give you this.

Surely that benefits L+G and its partners in the specification, Elster and Secure, though?
In terms of accelerating the industry, it does, but in terms of giving away our intellectual property it does not.

The more bad decisions that get made, the less...

Topics: Networking


David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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