- Smart meters provide the ability to track and control energy consumption.
- Smart metering technology allows remote contact with a metered contact point, which can also present cybersecurity risks.
- If smart meters are installed by a local utility or government for utility management, property owners don't have much say in whether the technology is used.
What is a smart meter, and how does it work?
A smart meter provides the objective tracking of utility energy consumption that occurs on the system or outlet it is attached to. For example, a smart meter connected to a natural gas line tracks the number of therms consumed by the facility. The "smart" feature of the meter lets it control the flow of the resource being used, such as natural gas, water or electricity. The smart aspect also allows the meter to be controlled remotely.
Why are smart meters becoming popular?
Smart metering is a way for businesses to keep track of how much energy they're using so they can adjust their usage if necessary. In addition to measuring usage, smart meters record a variety of data points on consumption, including when a resource is being used, how much is being used at a time and where it's being directed. Through an internet or wireless connection, the data is relayed to a console, where you can see a breakdown of the data.
Many electric, gas, water and other utility companies have embraced smart metering as an efficient method of tracking usage across their customer bases to better determine costs and infrastructure needs. Smart metering can give both utilities and their customers better ideas of how usage affects their costs and help them determine new strategies to save money.
Though smart metering is relatively new, there are already many applications for the technology. The internet of things (IoT) field has taken advantage of smart metering to expand a network of interconnected devices producing a massive amount of data.
Because smart metering is a newer way to track energy usage, in many markets it's an optional installation for businesses from their utility providers. Although utilities may charge for the installation, the extra cost may be worth it for businesses because it allows them to adjust their usage to save on energy costs.
Can you refuse to have a smart meter installed?
Whether you can refuse a smart meter depends on who owns the facility and what system is being controlled. In the case of municipal devices, such as natural gas outlets or electricity connections, many jurisdictions have passed laws and regulations to require smart meter installations and use.
In other jurisdictions, it's up to the owner. If a resident or business owner is leasing the property, they may not have a choice of whether a smart meter is installed.
How can smart metering help businesses?
The direct benefit of smart metering is the precise knowledge of your business's energy and other utility usage. Most smart meters tie directly into an interface that gives you an exact readout of your usage, breaking it down by the time of day, day of the week and month. Having this information at your fingertips can help you make better decisions about your usage and keep up-to-date records of your resource usage.
Getting a better idea of how much you're consuming at any given time can inspire you to launch initiatives to reduce consumption. Some interfaces correlate usage with a monetary measurement, like a rating of watts per hour, allowing you to see how much electricity is costing you by the minute.
Neil Maldeis, engineering leader with HVAC system maker Trane, described a project with an Illinois school district to set up an interactive smart metering interface for students to monitor their own school's energy consumption.
"The upgrades implemented by the district helped increase energy efficiency, provide comfort to enhance learning conditions and improve environmental literacy," Maldeis said. "As a result, energy and maintenance costs have been reduced, nearly 20 hours of weekly staff labor have been eliminated and the district has qualified for nearly $64,000 in rebates. District officials expect to save $500,000 over the course of the project, which was one of their strategic plan objectives."
What are the risks of smart meters?
Because smart meters operate on connected networks, they present some cybersecurity risks: Theoretically, anyone who knows how to hack the device could take control of it. Several real hackers have proved that this is possible whenever there is an open public outlet, such as an IoT device utilizing the internet. Closed signal channels are much harder to get into without unauthorized access, but it is still possible.
The future of smart metering
Smart metering is improved by new and better connectivity innovations, especially IoT. With meters tied to the mechanisms that control the resources they're measuring, we can turn some of our decisions over to automation backed by machine learning. An IBM blog suggests that a smart meter tied to a thermostat can help it determine times to change the heat based on fluctuating energy costs. Smart meters can be applied to numerous devices and machinery, allowing businesses to manage their power usage per machine.
Another potential application is for devices that use up consumable resources that need to be refilled. Smart meters that detect that a resource is about to run out can prompt an IoT device to automatically order a refill.
For utility companies, the more smart meters they have connected to their infrastructure, the more data on customer usage they can acquire to run their grid more efficiently. They can detect irregularities live in sections and go onsite to make preventive repairs on certain areas before an outage occurs.