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Meters Beyond the Cash Register

Electric meters, utilities fast changing

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Energy Times asked thought leader Howard Scott, expert on metering, to reflect on our recent two-part interview with Philip Mezey, the head of Itron, and offer his views on where the metering and utility sectors are headed.

The vast majority of human beings don’t care about anything that utilities do – they live outside the network and merely think of electricity as a normal part of their lives.  It is a commodity, most users don’t care what it takes to deliver, but do find it “damn inconvenient” when it is not available.  From their perspective, the meter is a box that sits outside their house and tells the electric utility what to charge them.  Ever since the electric meter was first invented in the 1880’s, most utilities have also viewed it as merely their cash register.

Even when meters were primarily read by hand, the meter data held valuable information.  Unfortunately, it was rarely used.  For almost 20 years, I would end my many talks with the following comment: “One of these days, users will actually give a damn about using all that data!!!”  That day finally came a decade ago with the introduction of AMI.

Our industry was not alone in this evolution.  Suddenly, every industry cares about data.  This is both good and bad for us.  We are now able to use tools and methods developed for other industries.  However, we must be realistic – we are rarely technology leaders and will likely have to compete with other industries for access to the most innovative minds.

So what is the future of metering?

Howard Scott

This is the wrong question.  Our society is becoming more data-oriented, so utilities will be expected to also have a data focus. Almost all of us use smart devices every day, so meters will also have to be smart.  But what does that mean?

The old debate of central vs. distributed processing has gone away.  All devices will be expected to contain processors and all will be expected to communicate.  All remote devices, including meters, will be expected to report on what is happening inside themselves as well as nearby and to report information, not just data.  Centralized processors will collect this information and extract more global insights.  Utilities will be “smart” because they will stop wasting time gathering data and instead will dynamically be acting on information and insights extracted from sensors and measuring devices that will proliferate through our environment.

So what about the meter?  The answer, painful to some of us, is that metering will cease to be a self-standing industry.  The meter will be just one of many smart components that will gather information and forward it to smarter devices within the utility as well as to other devices in our homes and on our persons that tell us about the world around us.

Don’t be surprised if this quickly becomes a trivia topic.  “Do you remember when we used to have meters on the sides of our homes?”  “Oh, you mean the boxes that were used by telephone companies.”  “No, not those, the boxes that the electric utilities used.”  “What’s an electric utility?”

Howard Scott is managing director of Cognyst Advisors.

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