David Clendon

Minister leaves door open for truly smart meters

by David Clendon

At the moment we have a serious problem. Electricity consumers around the country are having smart meters installed that aren’t really smart, and then have to pay for them through their electricity bill, without getting any of the benefits.

Many groups have spoken out against this silliness, but despite some solid advice on how to fix the problem, the government still has not expressed support for remedying it.

The idea that Energy Minister Brownlee rejected my Smart Meters (Consumer Choice) Bill is mistaken. The Minister has said repeatedly that he rejects extensive regulation of smart meters, something with which I entirely agree. The Minister has also accepted the advice of the Electricity Commission that “The Commission does, however, recommend regulating some technical standards, for example on information exchange protocols and data security, through electricity industry rules”.

This is precisely what my Bill does, as well as requiring that companies installing smart meters, offer the customer an in-home-display, and a variable rate tariff that allows them to save some money, but only if they want it.

In effect, my Bill does four things:

  1. Makes some parts of the voluntary industry standard mandatory
  2. Requires the smart meter to be installed with the smarts – a HAN chip
  3. Requires the installer to offer money saving accessories to the consumer
  4. Requires the power company to offer a money saving electricity tariff.

The customer wouldn’t be required to buy or accept any of it. That’s the consumer choice bit.

Last week the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, spoke to Grey Power about the power of truly smart meters:

My basic job is to provide Parliament with independent advice on the environment. It’s a set up that gives me independence from the government of the time and allows me to give full and frank advice to our legislators.

Of course this occasionally leads to me getting involved with some controversial issues such as the current mining debate or indeed, my reason for being here today — smart meters.

We are not always blind consumers. When I go to the shop to buy apples, I see the choices laid out in front of me. But when I buy electricity, my information is very poor. And therefore the market cannot function well. My monthly bill is largely mysterious. Maybe it’s lower than last month. I don’t know if this is because I bought a more efficient refrigerator. Or because the weather was warmer than usual. Or because the price has fallen – but pigs might fly.

What makes a meter really smart?

At the heart of a really smart meter is a Home Area Network chip – a HAN. We have computer chips in many things now – in our washing machines, for example.

First a really smart meter – one with a HAN chip – will be able to talk to an in-home display. An in-home display might be as simple as a globe that sits on your coffee table or kitchen bench and glows red in peak times to remind you to turn off unnecessary lights or appliances. Or it could be something much more sophisticated giving you detailed information about how much electricity you are using and how much you are paying – what is called real-time information.

Overseas evidence shows that in-home displays, delivering only simple consumption information to a readily accessible location, can lead to a 5 to15 percent reduction in electricity use. This could happen virtually right away – Noel Leeming, Dick Smith and L V Martin will make sure in-home displays are quickly available as soon as there are meters that can talk to them.

What more can I add to that? If Parliament’s independent watchdog says that truly smart meters are a good idea, I’m keen to take that advice and put it into law. That’s what my bill sets out to do, and I hope I’ll have the Government’s support when it has its first reading in the House. Then we can have a full and open debate about the benefits of smart meters, and how best to ensure that New Zealander’s get one of them, and not the half-dumb meters being installed at the moment.

Published in Economy, Work, & Welfare | Parliament by David Clendon on Thu, April 22nd, 2010   

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