Clean Technology: You gettin' smart?

By Adam Gifford

Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

If knowledge is power, then getting more knowledge about power amounts to a double whammy.

The roll out of smart meters means information is being collected about household power consumption on a half-hourly basis, and power retailers are starting to share that information with customers.

Auckland-based retailer Mercury Energy recently unveiled GEM or Good Energy Monitor, which its acting general manager retail Allan Lightbourne says is the first full use of the data for a nationwide consumer application.

Customers can track usage costs, predict their next power bill, get alerts for unusual usage, and compare their usage with similar homes.?The 180,000 residential customers with smart meters can drill down to the half hour level. The 85,000 on old-style or legacy meters can make only monthly comparisons.

"GEM for us is all about an enriched engagement with customers. It gives them an opportunity to understand more about their use," Lightbourne says. ?"It's not only about consumption but it also gives energy saving tips and allows them to set up a personalised energy saving plan and goals."

It may seem odd for power companies to promote ways for customers to use less power, but there is a business case, in customer retention, selling other products and services and in deferring new transmission and generation capacity.

It is also better to have customers using off-peak power, which is likely to come out of base renewable capacity, rather than at peak times when the supplier may have to buy the power on the wholesale or spot markets, and which often involves carbon-intense, coal or gas-fired generation.

Mercury has also experimented with time-of-use billing to residential customers, examining the behaviour of customers who have the option of peak or off-peak electricity pricing. Lightbourne says the company has conducted three time-of-use trials over recent years, but it's too early to say if will be made more generally available. According to Lightbourne, the key learning to date has been that customers have valued information more than differential rates to encourage them to shift load.

Meridian Energy offers a Daily Energy Report to some of its Christchurch customers, allowing them to go online and check power consumption. Its general manager of retail, Bill Highet, says that allows them to better understand the impact of night and day rates and make decisions.

Genesis Energy now lets customers who have smart meters view and graph their electricity usage online. It is also looking at offering time-of-use tariffs in two network regions in the next few months, after trials in west Auckland, Christchurch and in the 15 Devonport households in its 'Tomorrow Street' trial.? Spokesperson Richard Gordon says Tomorrow Street allows Genesis to test some of the products and services it is considering for wider deployment.

The households were given insulation subsidies, up to $3000 of energy saving equipment such as more efficient fridges and LED lighting, and a tariff with peak, off-peak and shoulder pricing. ?They also get a HomeiQ wireless control panel from Californian company Greenwave Reality that allows them to manage features such as when they want devices such as washers and driers turned on or when lights should dim.

Tomorrow Street householder Claire Green says it's made her household far more aware of how much power is going into their Stanley Point villa. ?"We're working on a different system where appliances go on in the middle of the night, so we feel more in control of our power use. I set the washing machine to go on at 5am, and I can hang out the clothes when I get up," Green says.

"The most effective thing is it made us think about power differently. There is more transparency, and we no longer feel we have no control. Before we would just flick the switches on and whinge about the costs, but now we know there are things we can do about it."

Gordon says Tomorrow Street is giving the company valuable insights into customer behaviour. "One thing we learned is customers are not all the same, there are different segments we need to recognise with different requirements."

Gordon says last month the power bill at Tomorrow Street homes was on average 21% down on the corresponding period last year.

Genesis uses meters from Vector subsidiary Advanced Metering Services, which has about 42% of the market or 450,000 meters. Other smart meter providers include Meridian subsidiary Arc, which has just over 120,000 smart meters installed, and Metrix, which is owned by Mighty River Power.

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