$5m Country Energy smart meter trial comes to NSW

Country Energy is seeking 10,000 residents to join a smart meter pilot program which aims to allow consumers to monitor energy consumption — but major obstacles stand in the way of a mass rollout.

Country Energy is seeking 10,000 residents to join a smart meter pilot program which aims to allow consumers to monitor energy consumption — but don't expect to see the technology installed any time soon.

Country Energy's smart meter trial will see electrical appliances at 10,000 NSW homes equipped with smart meters, to give consumers the ability to measure the energy used by each appliance.

An Intelligence Network Centre will also be built in Queanbeyan, NSW as an education and display centre for the pilot. The centre will collect usage data in real time from the smart sensor network, and will aim to provide a mechanism for Country Energy to improve network management and maintenance.

The energy utility is yet to decide which regions in NSW will be suitable for such a trial, according to Ben Hamilton, Country Energy's general manager for strategy.

"We're in the early stages of planning and we're looking at ideal locations ... to ensure that the sample is representative," Hamilton told ZDNet.com.au.

IBM will also be working with Country Energy to design the network's architecture. The network could, in the future, allow homes that have alternative energy supplies, such as solar energy, to sell excess capacity.

However, according to an Energy Australia report last year, energy prices are also a major obstacle in Australia to a smart metering system: due to the relatively low price of energy, a full-scale rollout could be hard to justify. Consumers should not expect the technology in the near future: Country Energy plans to spend just AU$5million from its AU$500 million annual capital expenditure budget, and is yet to source vendors to supply the smart meters, sensors and the network, said Hamilton.

"We're looking to partner with vendors -- telcos and specialist equipment manufacturers — who are interested in how their equipment could fit within the project. This is a long term project for the company so we're not going to leap into anything," he said.

Jeff Lee, IBM's Asia Pacific lead for Intelligent Networks, said that for a national rollout of a system similar to that being trialled, would require investments in infrastructure of as much as AU$100 billion dollars.

"You can't replace the investment in electro-mechanical devices overnight. Gradually, substations will get changed to become IT-enabled. But then you have to build the communication infrastructure to do that. We're talking about installing sensors on every light pole and on every transformer," said Lee.