Europe moves towards smart grids – with smart meters

Following in the footsteps of Sweden and Italy, France is preparing to embrace “smart meter” technology on a massive scale – every household in France is due to have one by 2020. This move is set to be echoed on a European level.

“Smart meters” (or “communicating meters”) are electronic boxes which replace traditional meters on a building’s switchboard. Its distinguishing feature is that it connects directly, mainly via internet, with the grid management system. This new generation of meters therefore provides the power manager,distributor and customer with instant access to information on real-time power consumption. These data should enable power producers and distributors to finely tune power used by consumers over the short, medium and long term. For example, consumption peaks will be identified and addressed in real time. According to French power distributor ERDF, smart meters should generate electricity savings of 5% to 15% a year. These meters also make it possible to manage the grid by receiving instructions remotely, without the need for a site visit by technicians, e.g. opening or closing an account, power restriction, pre-payment, etc.

Italy and Sweden – pioneers in “smart meters”

So far only two European Union member countries have committed to equipping all customers with smart meters – Italy and Sweden. Italy is due to finish equipping its 36 million consumers during 2011. Power company Enel has already announced the benefits in terms of fewer service interruptions (from 128 to 49 minutes per year) and a 5% reduction in consumption peaks. It is also estimated that losses due to various forms of fraud will eventually be reduced. In Sweden, more than 900,000 communicating meters have already been installed. With one of the lowest population densities in the world and a surface area of 449,964km², the country is a pioneer in this technology. It means that meters can be read remotely in accordance with the legal requirement for monthly readings which has been in force there since 1 July, 2009, and which would appear to be impossible to comply with without this technological support.

In France – not until 2020

In France, Linky meters are due to replace old EDF meters across the country by 2020. Linky can communicate data remotely, transmitting it directly to ERDF’s supervision centre. It can also carry out commands remotely, meaning a technician’s presence is no longer required. This offers power distribution companies numerous possibilities: precise knowledge of the consumption structure in real-time, savings in travel costs, etc. Furthermore, by enabling consumers to precisely track their consumption, it is thought that smart meters will improve consumers’ behavior, with “natural” reduction in demand as a result of differentiated tariffs (e.g. I won’t turn on my washing machine during the peak period as it is more expensive) or, in the longer term, as a result of energy-saving measures (insulation, low-energy light bulbs, etc.). A pilot experiment, conducted mainly in Indre-et-Loire and Lyons, was deemed to be conclusive. Smart meters will therefore be rolled out to the whole country, i.e. 35 million meters to be installed by 2020, and new buildings will be systematically fitted with them from 2012.

Europe acts

The eventual objective is obviously to have greater control over electrical supply and demand and to improve the grid’s efficiency on a European level. Indeed, back in 2009 the Parliament and the Council published a directive encouraging the use of smart meters, hoping for 80% of the European population to be equipped by 2020. The Commission and the Parliament have also stepped up their support for use of smart meters since the start of 2011. The EU is similarly promoting the use of these meters as part of its energy policy and agenda for 2020 and the Commission has launched an initiative encouraging investments in this sector, while the European Parliament is in the process of drafting a report. This will be subject to a vote next summer.

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