Blog Post

Smart Meter Worries Crop Up In Australia

Updated: Worries over the installation of smart meters isn’t just happening grassroots-style in select cities in the U.S., (Dallas, Texas and Bakersfield, Calif). Last week the government for the Australian state of Victoria declared an indefinite moratorium on the time of use pricing for its $2 billion plan to roll out 2.5 million smart meters to residents and small businesses. The reason: worries that time of use pricing would disproportionately effect the unemployed and the elderly (people who spend a lot of time in their homes), and potentially add $250 for an annual electricity bill. (Updated to reflect the concentration on the time of use pricing).

The Victorian government says it still plans to go forward with the smart meter project and will be specifically studying the effect of variable pricing on consumers. Victorian Energy and Resources Minister Peter Batchelor called for the halt on the time of use pricing associated smart meters after he met with charities and social services lobbying groups including the Utilities Advocacy Centre (CUAC), Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) and St Vincent de Paul.

Updated: Eric Dresselhuys, executive vice president of markets for smart grid network provider Silver Spring Networks, which is selling into the Victorian market, tells us this afternoon that the moratorium was only placed on the time of use pricing, and not the installation on the smart meters.

On one hand, it’s a good idea for the Victorian government to recognize — and fully study — how potential bill increases could effect its residents. In the U.S., it seems like there’s been very little discussion about the fact that a smart meter and variable pricing (prices change at different times of day depending on peak and off peak usage) could actually increase a monthly energy bill for a population that can’t shift electricity use to off-peak times of day. In comparison the discussion in Bakersfield and Dallas has been around whether meters are accurate or not.

It’s a big mistake for utilities to over promise what smart meters can do for their customers, because — in these times of economic insecurity and grass roots politics (Tea Party!) — customers will react badly to unexpected price increases. Customer have naturally abstracted smart meters (let’s face it, most people don’t care about electricity consumption) and as Pedro pointed out on Friday the new consumer outreach-focused Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’s (SGCC) that launched last week will have its work cut out for it.

But the halt of Victoria’s smart meter pricing program is the latest blow to the consumer confidence surrounding the smart grid. Victoria’s plan was one of the most aggressive by a government, and as of November there were more than 10,000 smart meters rolled out in Victoria, installed by utilities Jemena, United Energy Distribution (UED), CitiPower and Powercor. SP AusNet was supposed to start its smart meter installations in January.

The delay will be a worry for the vendors that have signed on to those Victorian smart meter rollouts. SP AusNet announced in October that it would be building a smart meter network based on the wireless technology WiMAX, with partners smart meter software maker Grid Net, network hardware maker Motorola and using Unwired Australia’s wireless spectrum.

The halt, and the original project itself, has also been highly-political. Victoria has been bidding to receive $100 million from the Australian federal government to test out energy-efficiency and smart grid technology (the winning state is supposed to be announced in April). In addition it’s an election year in Victoria and the smart meter program has been caught up in political posturing by Victoria’s parties.

For related research check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Making Smart Meters the Must-Have Gadget of the Year

Smart Meters: Time for a Customer Service Reboot

Image courtesy of juverna’s photostream Flickr Creative Commons.

15 Responses to “Smart Meter Worries Crop Up In Australia”

  1. OMG, you Aussie’s are getting screwed just like us up here in the great white north (Canada)Smart meters, carbon taxes,gay rights, GST…By the way, did you at one time have a single government run utility that ran your hydro only to be broken up into a bunch of smaller companies that are now charged with distribution,delivery,billing and so on,while the former corporation left the public with a massive debt which they cheerfully add to your monthly bill…and is it cheaper to use hydro after 9pm until 5am like it is here, until those hours are considered prime time

  2. Silent Lamb

    Unfortunately, the crypto that the meters are running is trivial to crack. It’s something on the order 16 bit. Let me take a detour into cryptography for a moment. As a rule, the more bits you have the harder it is to decrypt stuff. And it’s a logarithmic progression in difficulty, not a linear one.

    Standard web site 128 bit and that is considered, quite frankly, to be largely inadequate even though we all use it every time we pay for something on line. Yet this is a full order of magnitude greater than your “Stupid Meter”. Most US government specifications require at minimum 2048 bit and many a great deal more.

    Why does that matter? Well, you see if you can decrypt it, you can change it. And now you want to know why that matters? Well, that requires another detour. This time we’re hopping to Ontario, Canada. Friend of mine gets a phone call from her son while she’s on her way home from work. “Guess what, Mom… Your house is on the news.”

    Seems that when her first husband died, she had kept the house and rented it out. Rented it to what she thought was a nice young family. After they had been there for a while with no signs of trouble, regular rent payments, etc., she stopped doing inspections. Once that happened, they “converted” the house into a marijuana growing operation.

    The drilled through the basement wall and tapped into the power on the grid side of the meter, netting her a $10,000 fine for that alone. She had liked the family and trusted them when they asked that she keep the meter in her name. They did it to power the lights, fans, hydroponics, etc.

    They ripped most of the plumbing out of the walls to provide irrigation and misting. It was rerouted in some cases straight out of the wall. The waste water was being pumped straight in to the sewer line under the house. They drilled through the foundation to get to it.

    They cut holes in the floors/ceilings to run additional electrical, plumbing, and 12″ diameter ventilation pipes to serve the plants. They drilled into the brick chimney to route the air leaving the house up the chimney so that no one would smell them just walking through the neighborhood.

    Between the dirt, nutrients, misting, and hydroponics the mold damage alone required thousands in remediation. All of the walls had to come out. All the insulation. All of the trim, cabinets, tile, hardwood floors. The house had to be gutted to a shell. They did a version of sandblasting with dry ice to get rid of the mold. Then she could pay more money to have fresh floors, ceilings, walls, etc. all put back in. Never mind repairing the foundation, plumbing, electrical, and structural damages caused by holes they cut.

    The real kicker in all of this was that her homeowners insurance didn’t cover a darn dime since it was 1) done in the commission of a crime and 2) it was done deliberately. She had to pony up out of pocket.

    I recall her son asking the police why they had drilled through the foundation to get to the electric meter.

    This is why our little side trip is important. The policeman explained that one of the main ways that they locate grow houses is by electrical usage. They used to be able to find them by excessively high meter readings, but the growers have gotten wise to that so they tap the grid directly now. In response to that the police have started looking for spikes in electrical usage that occur when a grow house comes on line.

    So – we’ve established that you have the ability to change meter readings. You have people who have a lot of money who want to hid a lot of excess electrical usage. Those people have a BIG motivation to hide the excess electrical usage. It keeps them from going to jail.

    Instead of leaving all those kilowatts unaccounted for, why not spread them around to your neighbors?

  3. John Martin

    No customer functionality is now being provided as a consequence of the moratorium. The ZigBee HAN is not enabled, remote connect/disconnect is not enabled and now ToU Tariffs are not being provided.

    These have got to be the dumbest smart meters in the world!

  4. I don’t understand. Why should there be a moratorium on time of use rates? Did the utility plan on imposing these rates to ALL its customers? If yes, that should never be allowed. On the other hand, if the utility merely offered the time of use as one rate choice among many, I see no reason for a moratorium. Something’s missing in this story.

  5. I talked with at least one vendor selling into the Victorian market and they confirmed that the moratorium is focused on the time of use pricing and not on the smart meters. The local media reports were not clear on that. But I clarified that in the post. I’ll update it more when I hear more.

  6. The article is mistaken. The rollout is not subject to the moratorium. All that is subject to the moratorium is the implementation of TOU tariffs. There is no worry for the vendors. The smart meter rollout is not affected, not slowed down, and there is no intention to stop or slow down the rollout.

    • John Martin

      But Phil there aren’t any smart meters being installed in Victoria anyway – they’re just dumb expensive (for customers) electronic meters.

  7. I live in Victoria and this government couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. As I understand it the Auditor General got stuck into them for the ridiculous cost of these metres. Basically just monopolistic utilities using these metres as yet another excuse to gouge consumers.

  8. More special interest groups holding as all to ransom. How pathetic to have not planned for those groups before giving the go ahead on the project in the first place. Sounds to me like the federal funding spigot was turned off and this is just a vote winning PR excuse to close it down.