Are our governments really serious about Smart Metering, or are they just throwing money away as a political gesture? Increasingly it looks as if it’s the latter. Barack Obama just made a headline announcement that the U.S. Government is prepared to waste $3.4 billion putting smart meters into 13% of U.S. homes. The reason for my cynicism is a lack of standards, particularly with respect to the choice of a wireless specification to link the meters with each other and to appliances around the home. The current choices are not based on any understanding of technology, rather than lobbying by companies desperate for funding. As a result, there’s a strong chance that these meters will not work.
I was at the Wireless Congress in Munich last week and listened to at least four different wireless standards explain why they’re each the best choice for smart meters. Not one of them was really convincing. Most had slick marketing presentations, but underneath, there are some very good technical reasons as to why NONE of the current pretenders are the correct one to choose if we really want smart energy to work.
The critical problem is the choice of the 2.4GHz frequency band, which is where most of the contenders operate. Ten years ago that portion of spectrum, known as an Industrial Scientific and Medical band (ISM) was virtually empty. Microwave ovens used it, but only for a few minutes each day. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee were all still dreams. It was like a freeway built before cars arrived. Today it is already congested and each new evolution of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi eat up even more of it. In another ten years, which is before the Smart Meter rollouts will even have been completed, it is likely to be at a standstill.
Smart Metering is an initiative that will cost billions of euros / dollars to install and which needs to continue to work for a lifespan of twenty or more years. All of the prospective wireless technologies being considered for use in Smart Meters operate in open frequency bands that are likely to be heavily congested before the smart meter installation program is even started. To use this spectrum for something as critical as smart metering is folly.
If Smart Metering is going to provide benefits, it deserves its own wireless spectrum and standard. It’s not too late for regulators to set aside spectrum and for standards bodies to get together to produce an optimal standard. If they don’t, we risk wasting trillions of dollars and failing to achieve any reduction in energy consumption.