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As in many developed countries, Australia’s grid infrastructure is ageing but state-led infrastructure modernisation has been ongoing since 2009.

The year marked the start of smart metering in the country, when Victoria implemented its mandatory AU$2.24 billion, 2.8 million meter rollout, the country’s first advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) project.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 3-2019. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

The rollout has been considered the most advanced to date and only Western Australia has joined Victoria in completing rollouts to date. Nationwide, state-led programmes were implemented by the country’s energy regulator in December 2017.

Australia is behind the curve

There are roughly 3.3 million smart meters installed across the national electricity market, out of a total 13.6 million meters, accounting for less than a quarter of the country. Estimates say that the national programme should be completed by 2023, but upgrading to the new technology is optional for consumers.

An October 2018 report by Australian smart city experts Delos Delta and Topfer & Associates led to the release of a policy paper advising the Australian government on the state of smart metering, its role in smart cities, and how to the rollout could “get back on track”.

The paper entitled “The Smart Meter Revolution: How Australia Fell Behind, and How We Can Get Back On Track” was damning in itsassessment of smart metering in the country.

Delos Delta’s managing director, and former energy executive for Central-Australia’s government, Brook Dixon, described the
country’s electricity environment as “…embarrassing and unstable.
Not only are consumers missing out on the opportunity to take control of their electricity usage and monthly bills, but we have also stalled our push to become a Smart City global leader.”

According to Paul Topfer, CEO of Topfer & Associates, “smart metering deployments were significantly undermined following
the Victorian experience; however the lessons are now obvious, and the industry is well placed to deliver the promised customer benefits. We just need policy makers to step up to the challenge!”

Controversy

However, the rollouts, led by publically-owned distributors, have met with large amounts of controversy, and limited success.
An auditor-general report found that the Victoria rollout offered no real benefits to consumers, but carried a potential cost of AU$319 million.
Victoria residents kicked back at the rollout, raising concerns around the cost of electricity increasing, and being charged more in times of peak demand, along with privacy concerns surrounding the sharing of their energy consumption data.

Residents have no visibility

Customer visibility of consumption data is non-existent. To date, the success of the Victoria rollout hinges on customer-benefits like reduced metering charges, and support for new technologies, but cost savings from energy monitoring have been non-existent.

Local utility AusNet Services has generated savings in excess of AU$26 million per annum. Competitor utility Jemena reported 2016 customer savings of AU$1,654, 890 by preventing approximately 4,105 truck visits to metered sites.
Energy Networks Australia (ENA), however, said in 2018 that the Victoria rollout put the state ahead of the rest of the country.

“Metering charges have reduced dramatically and the technology has begun to offer Victorian energy customers a distinct
‘first-mover advantage’, as the benefits of advanced metering now flow through,” an ENA spokeswoman said.

Uptake in other states has been slower. As at the end of the first quarter of 2018, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania had 400,000 smart meters installed, and most of these were part of solar rooftop installations for prosumers.
Western Australia’s installations totalled 47,000 in the same period.

“The rate of installation has been low – around 3,500 – in the months since December 2017, which is in line with expectations,” the spokeswoman said.

So what can be done to meet the challenges?

Data protection

The federal government has been working on a major reform package that will provide consumers and third parties simple access to data, in three key sectors: banking, electricity and telecommunications.
There is a further possible vulnerability though – the assumption that third-parties such as data platform solutions companies and energy suppliers will create the platforms themselves, creating another possible disconnect or stumbling block for consumers.

Reforms are envisioned to include the formulation of a new database by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) that will be openly accessible by industry stakeholders. This basic information is expected to comprise information such as the consumer’s name, address, email, phone number, current retailer and tariff details, electricity distributor, and details regarding any installed renewables or energy storage.

Overcoming the consumption data visibility challenge

This is arguably the main benefit of smart metering to consumers, as planned use and variable tariffs are both options; but to achieve this, consumers need useful information and tariff comparisons, preferably free of any additional charges.

The main consumer benefit of a smart meter is to reduce electricity bills. But to do this, consumers need easy access to their daily electricity usage data, which can then be translated into useful information that enables them to compare tariffs. Consumers ought to be able choose such value-added services from third party providers by granting access to this data.

Currently the federal government’s Energy Made Easy website is run by the Australian Energy Regulator, and proposals have been made to revise the site to standards similar to Victoria’s Switch On and North America’s Green Button programme.

It is hoped that consumers, both residential and commercial, will be able to make full use of the technology prior to the finalisation of the rollout, but until then, the rollout will likely still leave some Australians unable to say “No worries” for a while yet.