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.