Climate Change, Energy and Resources

“Self-serving nonsense”: Why smart meters and the energy industry failed Australians

Gavin Dietz /

smart meters

Wattwatchers chief executive Gavin Dietz. Source: Supplied.

The way Australia handles electricity metering, and energy data technologies more broadly, is failing the climate and also consumers.

Small businesses and households are the most disadvantaged because the power imbalance and information asymmetry between them and the big energy companies is huge.

I should know. I’ve been working as an energy insider, one way or another, for most of the past 15 years.

First, as a global executive in the world’s largest manufacturer of utility-style smart meters, Landis+Gyr; and most recently, leading the growth of disruptive Australian-based technology company Wattwatchers Digital Energy.

In many ways, the two roles couldn’t be more different. But there’s a conceptual common thread that binds them, which revolves around energy data having the potential to be a powerful driver for both carbon emissions reduction and consumer empowerment.

I say conceptual thread because, in reality, smart meters have failed hugely to deliver on the perceived promise that accompanied their global promotion and rollout in the early-2000s and since.

Today it’s become common to hear so-called ‘smart meters’ being condemned for actually being ‘dumb’. In the age of the smartphone, they are a clunky reminder of a bygone tech era.

Early notions that smart meters would be used as a key enabler for emissions reductions through energy efficiency and renewable energy have faded. They’ve actually been a bit player, at best, when compared to the transformative success of solar photovoltaics, wind farm technologies, energy efficiency programs, and low-emission products such as LED lighting systems.

In fact, depressingly, they mainly are being used to prolong the old energy order, protecting legacy energy companies and metering manufacturers alike, and keeping business and household electricity consumers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the power of data.

The consumer-empowering marvel of the internet era has been blocked when it comes to the electricity sector, because, even if consumers officially own their smart meter data — which they do — they can’t control it nor even access it in useful and timely ways.

This isn’t how it was meant to be. At least, it isn’t how the people I worked with in the mid-2000s anticipated the smart meter story unfolding.

As the Australian-based investment group Bayard Capital, we went around the world buying up 14 smart meter manufacturers, rolled them all up into Landis+Gyr, then ultimately sold the lot to Japan’s Toshiba in 2011 for a successful exit valued at $US2.3 billion.

We also promoted smart meter rollouts for Australia, and globally, including seeing tens of millions installed in post-global financial crisis America to help to stimulate the economy; and nearly three million across Victoria – a mandatory rollout that many came to see as an expensive debacle, which killed off any plans for the whole nation to do the same.

Naively, it now seems, we believed these digital metering technologies would be a gamechanger. But we didn’t fully reckon with the power of the dead hand of the industry incumbents, nor the inflexibility and resistance to innovation and change of the energy policymakers, regulators and market operators.

I share this background to further emphasise my point. We expected so much more from smart meters, and protecting the climate — mainly through energy efficiency — was overtly on our agenda. But we failed.

So here we are in 2019. Most businesses and households still get quarterly or monthly bills in arrears. Often meters aren’t read at all, and bills are estimated rather than actually read, a kind of best effort guesstimate really. Up to six million metered sites still have the antiquated spinning-wheel style electro-magnetic meters. Even energy retailers that offer apps, where they are based on smart meters, typically show data that is two-five days old.

Seriously? We’re in a real-time data world now. The Internet of Things. Analytics. Apps. Machine learning and artificial intelligence. Blockchain. Consumer data rights.

Australian business and household energy consumers deserve a new deal on energy data. Here are some simple ground rules.

1. Consumers own their energy data — this is non-negotiable and often demanded by consumers

2. They must have the rights and tools to access it, use it in timely and effective ways, and choose who else, if anyone, can get access to it or use it.

3. Where data has value to the energy system, markets or public, third-party access and value-adding will require:

  • Clear overarching terms and conditions (T&Cs) to be pre-agreed;
  • Specific consumer authorisations to vary; and
  • Privacy and security maintained as default.

If financial value is created from data, benefits must be shared transparently and fairly with the owners ( in other words, the consumers).

The old energy industry likes to argue ‘energy is special’, so consumers can’t have nor expect the same sort of data freedom and online personal control that they get with so many other service areas in their lives. This is self-serving nonsense.

This article is part of our spotlight on climate change. You can view the full series here.

NOW READ: Fair dinkum power needs more everyday Australians and fewer big electricity retailers

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Gavin Dietz

Gavin Dietz is the chief executive of Wattwatchers and an information technologist with a history in large scale start-ups including Fox & News Limited in Australia.

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