Some of the early conversions to smart grid technologies in the United States prompted backlashes from consumers. Utility customers in California and Texas, for instance, complained that the meters weren’t accurate and their monthly bills were soaring. These situations gave smart metering a bad name. But a large-scale rollout of smart meters s on Europe’s island of Malta that’s being managed by IBM hasn’t sparked the same kind of reaction.
Why not? Jean-Christophe Samin, project manager for IBM’s smart grid deployment for electricity and water in Malta, says the engagement teaches two important lessons:
1) Communities shouldn’t do smart metering in a vacuum. It should be part of a comprehensive makeover of how their utilities manage their businesses–the entire information chain from meter to billing system. “Smart metering needs to go hand in hand with the larger transformation,” Samin says.
2) It’s important to start small with a pilot version of the system. You work the problems out without major disruptions to the utilities or consumers. “This is a fundamental step before launching the massive rollout,” he says.
IBM in 2008 won a five-year contract to help Malta’s national power and water utilities, Enemalta Corp. and Water Services Corp., to build the world’s first national smart utility grid. The task was to replace 250,000 analog electric meters with smarter meters that can monitor electricity usage close to real time, identify electricity losses and set variable rates. At the same time, IBM is integrating the smart electricity metering applications with the island nation’s new smart water metering system.
Today, half way through the life of the project, more than 75,000 smart electric meters have been installed and they’re being added at a rate of 5,000 per month. Malta launched a smart grid Web portal that allows customers to get information about their accounts and, eventually, will allow them to monitor their consumption of water and electricity and compare their consumption with that of people with similar households.
While the system still has a long way to go to reach all of the island’s citizens and provide them with the full array of features, it’s already making a difference in many lives. For instance, previously, because of backlogs, people sometimes got their utility bills as rarely as once every six to eight months. Since the cost of electricity and water is so high on the island, they’d get socked with hug bills and have to scramble to come up with the money. Now, they’re billed reliably every two months and, and because the smart meters are monitored wirelessly, the bills reflect actual usage patterns, so there shouldn’t be surprises. People are able to budget and pay their bills with more confidence. “The benefits are favoring the consumer, and that’s helping with the acceptance of the program,” says Samin.
Down the road, the island’s smart utility grid has the potential of freeing it from dependency on expensive foreign oil. Businesses and individuals will be able to set up solar electricity generation systems and sell their excess energy to the utilities. In a country with an average of about 300 sunny days per year, that’s going to be a game changer.