Plans to install 500,000 smart electricity meters

Last updated 05:00 03/11/2011

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SmartCo, a consortium of electricity lines companies, has confirmed plans to install 500,000 "smart" electricity meters "from North Cape to Bluff" over the next three years at an expected cost of $200 million to $250m.

The meters will remotely monitor electricity consumption.

SmartCo general manager Bob Lack said they would probably contain chips that would let them communicate directly with intelligent home appliances, such as fridges, which could be programmed to defrost when demand for electricity was low.

SmartCo will not be installing the meters in Wellington as its 14 mostly provincial lines company members do not own meters in the city, but Levin-based company Electra, which also covers the Kapiti Coast, is part of the scheme.

About a third of the country's 1.8 million meters have been upgraded to smart meters by power retailers but without the chips to talk with appliances. Retailers argue these are unnecessary because of the internet or that they could be retrofitted.

Genesis Energy plans to introduce new tariffs this year that will let people pay peak and off-peak rates for power, to reflect changes in demand and supply during the day. But the benefits of smart meters and variable pricing have been questioned by some industry players, including Trustpower.

Retired Wellington consulting engineer Roger Donkin said the "elephant in the room" was home heating. "It is all very well for [people] to identify the `rats and mice loads', such as clothes dryers, dishwashers, heated towel rails and the frost-free cycle on a refrigerator as targets for load-shifting through variable rates and smart devices. The question is, can consumers reasonably forego electric space heating at such times in the same way as they can other domestic loads or are they going to be pinged by the highest variable rates that have been set by network demand?"

Lack said SmartCo's investment would help prepare for a future in which electricity was generated, as well as consumed, in the home, and people needed to recharge electric vehicles.

"How soon are we going to have a large number of electric vehicles around the country? We don't know, but quite conceivably within the operating life of the meters that are being installed now. One of the things that has been concerning us is that with retailers managing the [smart-meter] roll-outs, they are focusing on their customers who are pepper-potted across the country.

"An opportunity will be lost if, on any given network, there are four or five different smart-metering systems put in at different times."

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