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Smart meters to be rolled out to 2m homes

Smarter energy consumption and lower pollution expected from online domestic metering
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

Two million UK homes will  be wired for smart energy meters within two years, telling customers in real-time how much they are spending on gas and electricity.

The smart energy meters will include an in-home display with live readings of the bill in pounds and pence. Information will also be sent as it's gathered to the energy supplier, making estimated energy readings a thing of the past.

The announcement of the roll-out of the meters to two million homes was made on Monday by British Gas. The energy supplier has been trialling the technology since early 2009 in 50,000 homes and businesses, but says it lacked the technology suitable for nationwide uptake.

In a document describing the specification of the meters, the company said: "British Gas has been running smart meter trials for several years but has been unable to produce a metering system suitable for larger scale trialling. Having developed our specification, we will soon have a fully-specified meter that will be available to UK customers."

The system has four components: the electricity meter, the gas meter, the in-home display (IHD) and a comms hub. The four components will communicate by Zigbee, a short-range low power 2.4 GHz wireless technology, with the meters passing data to the hub and the display. The comms hub relays that data by GPRS to British Gas so it can charge the exact amount when the bill is due. The comms hub works independently from the other components so if either the hardware or the GPRS link goes down, energy can continue to be both consumed and monitored.

British Gas said that the use of GPRS, a two-way cellular data service, lets it upgrade the components' software permitting security and encryption to be updated in future. Other energy suppliers will be able to connect with the network so their customers can also have real-time energy readings. Vodafone will provide the GPRS coverage, while SAP, OSIsoft and Trilliant will supply software for the project.

This is the first step towards the eventual nationwide deployment of smart meters, something the Government has said it hopes to see by 2020. British Gas said it wants to beat that target, but it did not give a deadline.

Smart meters will be offered to consumers as their old meters fail, British Gas said, and consumers will for the time being be able to opt-out if they do not want one.

PA Consulting, a company that analyses the energy market, described in an opinion article smart metering as a "white knight" that will save consumers money and reduce CO2 emissions. "Most radically, if smart meters are used to develop a smart grid, energy companies will be able to manage demand in real-time, avoiding spikes in usage and reducing the number of power stations that we must build to stave off blackouts," it said. "The scale of the challenges we face means that smart metering has to be a vital part of our national energy infrastructure."

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