One of our readers felt the need to reply to Compos Mentis’s Viewpoint, which appeared in Smart Energy International 4/2004

That’s my response to Compos Mentis’s invitation in the last edition of Smart Energy International. Now that article of his was witty, clever and hit the nail on the head in many respects. He did, however, miss the point about why domestic users have TOU. Compos Mentis suggests that TOU is driven by utilities thinking about what a customer needs in the way of metering. Or, in utility speak, “What they need in the way of total solutions, or whatever.”

That might seem to be the case at first glance, but let us think about some background to metering. Over the last 30-odd years I have been involved in businesses connected to the utility industry. During most of that time – until fairly recently, in fact – you had to be careful if you were a senior engineer or manager in the metering department. Metering was rather pedestrian and uneventful, even if it did collect all the revenue. The technology and the equipment in metering had not changed much in 50 years; the really cool and sexy stuff was done in power station and substation design, and a young ambitious engineer could get noticed there. There were even marketing and public relations departments which might offer some scope. Getting tied down in metering might blunt a career – better move on.

ELECTRONIC METERS OFFER CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

Then electronic meters gradually become competitive in price, performance and MTBF (mean time before failure – Ed.). Now we do have something new and interesting and more complicated to play around with. There are more career opportunities too, because we need a whole new bunch of experts to run the show.

It will help if we find lots of reasons to buy more and more of these meters and invent clever new ways to use them. We can extract mountains of information, read meters from 1,000 miles away, structure our tariffs up, down and sideways to mesmerise consumers into using power when it suits us (not them) and they will surely be grateful.

Actually, the average consumer could not care less – Compos Mentis was right about that. But the new meters did help large users of power, who could strike a deal with suppliers and save money. This doesn’t apply to most of us, however. The single phase meter on my house, and the polyphase meter at my business, are both about 15 year old disc types, and will easily last another 30 years. Electricity costs represent less than 0.5% of business costs, and 2% of household costs and living expenses.

Admittedly, I am one of the fortunate who live and work in one of the richer countries of the world. This particular rich country is about to make every consumer switch over to electronic meters during the next 10 years. Will that change my electricity usage patterns, or those of 99% of my fellow citizens and businesses ? Are you kidding ?

NEW METERS A BONANZA FOR BUSINESS

It looks like a bonanza for a lot of people and businesses (not mine), since this is going to cost serious amounts of money. And unless our local utility runs a charity, I can see who is going to pay for all these new meters. But I fail to see any benefit, although I bet there is a list as long as your arm of all the ways in which life will be better, and we will all save money. The list will be from the utility, consultants, government bodies and anyone who can climb on the bandwagon with an axe to grind. We as electricity consumers are not on the receiving end of some terrible evil act. This is a combination of people and technology looking for a way in which to become more significant, to create careers, to invest and prosper. It is no different to what happens right across the spectrum of human life and endeavour.

What the customer really needs does not enter into this equation, but lip service must be paid and reasons found to justify the activity. Meanwhile, what is creating a major headache for utilities in the richer countries, and many less wealthy places, is the fact that airconditioners are becoming more affordable. You buy an aircon and want to use it whenever it is hot, when everybody else does, and when the utility is hard pressed to meet demand. You don’t want to run it much, maybe 5% of the year, but when it is hot you need it and you want it NOW. Show me the electronic meter to change that pattern of behaviour.