For as long as utilities have existed, they have created ways to have their customers pay for what they use. The meter has traditionally been that tool, and many have looked to the newer iteration, the smart meter, as the nexus to enable the next evolution in the way utilities perform. Smart meters have been deployed for water utilities and gas utilities with recent fanfare. Most significantly, smart meters have been deployed by electric utilities, which are using advanced metering infrastructure as a pillar for new programs for a cleaner grid with more efficient use of power. The electric submeter is a part of that plan, enabling a finer grain look at who uses power with a tenant-by-tenant view. But is it time for us to rethink meters? Are they going to be a part of our digital future? Certainly, we have to keep measuring use—having customers pay for the resources they use is critical, regardless of how low the cost. But with Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices, we need to rethink how resource use is reported, whether it be gas, water, or electricity.
A Clearer Picture Through IoT
IoT-enabled devices—think cable boxes, commercial HVAC units, large factory machines, and data centers–are already deployed in the marketplace. To date, most of the IoT buzz has been associated with control or information flow, like a building automation system controlling an HVAC unit or a cable company sending over the latest primetime drama. With little modification, IoT-enabled devices can share how much power, gas, or water they are using at the place and time of their use. If all new devices were shipped with this technology, it would be possible to have a clearer picture of how those resources are being used than by using the aggregation tool that is the meter.
Utilities would not want meters to go away. They are a key cornerstone of how they work, and, in some cases, are required by law. But as utilities strive to keep pace of the fourth industrial revolution, they may need to rethink how they want to provide better services for their customers. Approaches like circuit-level or plug-level energy reporting are not new, but if the entire electric, gas, or water system was reporting on how much it used in real time, it would provide a much clearer picture of the state of the system. This reporting could also shine a light into how much waste is present due to things like vampire loads or leaking pipes.
We’d need to have permissions and payment mechanisms resolved, and prototypes are already in development for microgrids. We’d need to have assurances that device reporting is reliable and secure, something that has already been proposed though the use of blockchain. The biggest obstacle is our existing infrastructure. At this point, it may not make economic sense to remove or even turn off meters and submeters, even as IoT devices are shipping. But there will be a time in the not-to-distant future where the meter will be viewed as redundant. It may be in a microgrid, or on a university campus. There will be a tipping point where, for some new commercial, residential, or industrial facility, it will be cheaper to have no meters at all. On that day, we stop using the end of the buggy whip as the prototypical example of obsolesces, and we will instead recall the era of the meter.