Murray Hartley, senior manager of Arthur D. Little’s Energy & Utilities Practice in the UK, takes a critical look at the potential for smart metering in Europe and discusses the logistics of how such a change-over could take place and at what cost.

Murray Hartley, Arthur D. Little, UK

The European Union’s 20:20:201 target is ambitious, and individual member states’ long-term targets for carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions are equally, if not more, taxing. In order to deliver against these targets there will have to be a fundamental change in the way we think about, generate and use electricity.

The cost of a smart metering system is around €80 per client, including meter, concentrator, modems, telecommunications and OPEX
Click here to enlarge image

The decarbonization of large-scale, centrally controlled power generation (via renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage) will only take us part of the way. There is, however, a potential wealth of low-carbon opportunities available at much smaller scales, either through changes in the way consumers use electricity or in the deployment of small-scale distributed generation.

There is one technology that sits at the junction of all of these forces: smart meters. Smart metering has the potential to influence the way we use electricity, as well as providing us with a means of rolling out domestic energy solutions.

A panacea for all our woes? Definitely not. But it is a crucial step in a long chain of changes which will need to happen over the coming years. Below we take a critical look at smart meters and assess their place in a changing European energy landscape.

Considerations and incentives

We start with a clarification. Smart meters are not merely meters that allow remote meter reading, i.e. a one-way flow of information. In the following discussion, smart meters refer to systems in which information flows in both directions. These systems open up a range of opportunities for utilities to engage with customers – either through more up-to-date information and innovative products, or through being able to tailor pricing structures according to actual usage patterns.

When considering the impact of smart metering on energy efficiency, there are two dimensions that need to be considered. The first is the reduction in direct consumption levels. Here, smart meters encourage behavioural changes, for example, turning electrical equipment off rather than onto standby, or turning down electrical heating or air conditioning during periods of high electricity demand.

These effects are fostered either by exposing consumers to their general consumption patterns (something which is possible with more frequent data logging), or by financial incentives (time-of-use tariffs with high prices during periods of peak demand).

The second energy efficiency impact is through switching when consumers use electricity. If load can be shifted from peak periods to off-peak or lower-demand periods, then two potential savings occur. The first is through not having to call on the high cost types of generation at times of peak demand. The second effect is felt in the transmission and distribution networks, where lower peak loads result in lower overall network losses.

While it is clear that smart metering will help in delivering against energy efficiency targets, it is not clear what the magnitude of these savings is likely to be. There has been very little research completed to directly measure these savings, although a number or studies are currently underway.

Smart meters offer a direct connection between the consumer and the utilities companies
Click here to enlarge image

The UK’s electricity regulator, Ofgem, for example, is currently facilitating trials across a large number of households, although their results have not been published to date. During some of their earlier analysis of previous customer response studies they indicated that savings of five to ten per cent were possible (a Swedish trial showed that significant peak savings were achieved through appropriate pricing structures and signalling), but highlighted that there were problems with some of the studies which cast doubts as to the robustness of these savings.

Energy efficiency, while being important, is by no means the only incentive either consumers or utilities have for switching to smart meters. There is a raft of other potential benefits available via a smart meter solution. The direct connections between the meter and the utility result in a number of savings, for example reduced manpower through less physical read requirements and improved billing accuracy, with the latter also reducing the overheads associated with billing queries and improving overall quality of service.

Smart meters also provide a flexible approach to debt management. Not only will more frequent monitoring of consumption and payment records flag potential bad debts earlier, but should bad debts arise then smart meters offer the means to reduce consumption (by limiting the maximum load available through the meter, etc.), thereby reducing debt escalation.

Smart meters also provide a means (but not the only means) of dealing with micro-generation. Traditional meters only measure electricity in one direction, i.e. into the house. This system of metering works with domestic generation – by measuring the net electricity flow into the house, but only up to the point where on-site generation meets the on-site demand, beyond this traditional meters fail.

Smart meters have two advantages in this case: they can accurately measure the exported energy and, potentially more valuably, they allow users to be paid at a tariff different to their own consumption charges, allowing more efficient charging for spilled micro-generation.

This tariff flexibility also offers a further incentive for both utilities and consumers to use a smart meter. Where a consumer has developed a profile of electricity use, the utilities may be able to offer that consumer a tariff structure which best suits their profile.

This has a number of benefits, including lowering overall costs to the utility through better management of their electricity purchasing and generation portfolio (therefore profiled better to match their actual consumption patterns) and lower costs to consumers through either shared cost savings or more competition at the retail level.

Finally, there are large incentives on utilities when it comes to planning and managing their networks. Currently, the lack of real-time low-voltage system information means that there is limited scope for significant improvement in distribution network operations.

Typically, savings obtained in the first years of smart metering deployment are related mainly to a reduction in back office and field personnel, and faster low voltage and medium voltage fault detection
Click here to enlarge image

The data generated and transmitted by smart meters opens up a range of potential cost saving operational improvements, including rapid fault identification, isolation and repair, and voltage and phase monitoring.

Furthermore, more detailed and granular network information allows for improved detection of network losses and theft. The information improvements enhance not only network operations but also network planning and investment, including better network reinforcement and development, and facilitating more renewable generation.

As discussed above, there are a broad range of energy efficiency savings and other incentives which make smart meters an attractive option, begging the question: why aren’t they already in widespread use?

Three simple answers: the costs, the fact that the benefits are spread across a range of parties (consumers, utilities and network operators, where the last two may not be the same company), and the complexity of the changes required for a wholesale migration to smart meters.

The cost of installing smart meters varies widely, depending on such factors as functionality, location (both from country to country and within a given country), communication options, and the degree of system changes required within the utility, for example, information management systems, business process changes, etc.

There are many estimates for the costs of smart meter systems, with most tending to range from €65–€100 ($84-129) per installation, but costs over €100 are distinctly possible. For a large utility (with, say, three million customers) this represents a €200–€300 million investment. This is dwarfed, however, by the multi-billion euro investment required at the national level with, for example, 35 million low-voltage meters being introduced in France and 25 million in the UK.

If the levels of cost weren not daunting enough, there is also the planning, organization and logistical requirements, as well as the potentially complex changes to information and business systems to deal with.

Given the amounts of money involved and the longevity of the meters once they are in place (a period of eight to 15 years, although it could be up to as much as 30 years ), getting it right first time should not be understated Therefore significant time and effort needs to be invested in planning a smart meter rollout.

logistics of a change-over

Utilities first need to evaluate the abundant array of smart metering technical solutions – encompassing technology, telecommunications and IT systems. This in itself is no easy task given the relative immaturity of the solutions and their ongoing development, which creates uncertainty for utilities attempting to identify which solution is best suited to their long-term needs.

Once a technical solution has been selected, utilities are faced with the sheer complexity of the deployment process. This involves not only installing a large number of meters (with all the associated logistics of sourcing, distributing and installing millions of new units), but also updating information management systems, allowing for new data capture, recording and reporting, as well as changing customer information and relationship management processes and infrastructure to, for example, facilitate new tariff design and implementation.

Furthermore, the smart metering system must be integrated with existing commercial (billing, contracting) and technical (field operations management) systems.

The deployment will also involve significant investment in communications systems, whether through power line options or existing telecommunications systems – in some cases this can require putting in place a brand new telecommunications network.

Finally, the impact of a smart metering system on operations means that the utility will have to redefine its key business processes, which will, in turn, have an impact on human resources.

All of these changes are ones that utilities want to make once, and once only, and the challenge is to ensure that maximum benefit is realized from such a large investment.

Getting an agreed or mandated common approach is therefore vital in providing the high level of confidence needed to allow utilities to go ahead with such large, potentially disruptive changes.

These issues are by no means insurmountable. There have already been a number of large-scale rollouts of smart meter technologies. Both Italy and Sweden have seen significant progress at the domestic level, although for very different reasons (ENEL’s 30 million meter rollout was mainly to reduce ‘non-technical’ losses or theft, while the Swedish rollout was in response to a requirement to bill customers monthly). There are also a number of large-scale pilot studies underway, with the French distribution company ERDF’s 300 000 unit pilot (covering both urban and rural meters) being the largest.

Pushing forward

While trials are all well and good, the clock is ticking for Europe to make significant progress towards its ambitious 20:20:20 targets. There remains so much uncertainty over the ‘best’ technical solution to use and its costs – what the benefits of smart meters really are and where those benefits fall (to the consumers, utilities or society as a whole) – that utilities require a ‘push’ to get them moving. This comes most often in the form of regulated or mandated requirements.

Governments and regulatory authorities are taking a mix of approaches to bring smart meters to the energy mix. These range from direct approaches, such as mandating a national smart meter rollout (either with or without financial incentives) or introducing direct standards for meters (information collection, data transmission, communication protocols, information display), through to indirect measures, where regulatory and legal barriers are removed (enabling, rather than mandating smart meters) or smart meters are made necessary to comply with other legal requirements, such as much more frequent meter readings or customer billings based on more detailed demand data.

The mandating route has not been the most common to date, though there are signs that this may be changing. The very obvious example of this is the UK model, where the government has mandated a ten-year rollout of smart meters, in what is arguably one of the most liberalized markets in Europe.

There are still a large number of issues to be ironed out, crucially the model that is adopted to deliver the rollout – which is complicated by the fact that the meters are not owned by the distribution networks and that meter supply and reading services are open to competition.

Smart meters are on the verge of leading a sea change in European electricity markets.

The confluence of increasing pressures to improve energy efficiency, increase renewable energy and improve retail competition, plus a desire by consumers to reduce electricity consumption in times of relatively high energy prices, and advances in technology and telecommunications, means that the time is right for the smart meter to step up and act as a lynchpin to take the European electricity consumer into the information age, but only if given a nudge through the door.


1. In December 2008 the EU established legally binding targets to, relative to 1990 levels, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent, establish a 20 per cent share for renewable energy, and improve energy efficiency by 20 per cent by 2020.