What Is A Smart Meter?

The term “smart grid” is increasingly popping up in the news and Australian homes are starting to have smart meters installed. So what’s it all about and what makes this infrastructure and equipment smart?
Our aging electricity infrastructure is like a leaky bucket, with a great deal of electricity lost between the points of generation and consumption. The “line loss” problem means more energy must be produced to make up the shortfall. As Australia is still so dependent on coal, this entails more environmental destruction through coal mining and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, alternative sources such as solar energy and wind power will become important distributed sources of energy in the future and will require the current analogue grid to become IP (Internet Protocol) enabled for effective management.
According to Smart Grid Australia, smart grid infrastructure is about radically transforming the ability of consumers and enterprises to find, produce, deliver, and use energy in a more cost-effective, resource efficient and environmentally sustainable way. Smart meters will play a major role in this new grid system.
For the consumer, a smart grid will mean meters installed in the home that can be read automatically over the network – so no more strange people in fluorescent clothing suddenly popping up in the garden. 
Most electricity customers currently only receive any detailed information about their electricity usage through their monthly bill. A smart meter can include a display that tells people about their current rate of electricity use and its cost, updated every 30 minutes. 
Smart meters will also make it easier to switch between retailers and give consumers access to value-added services from providers such as time of use tariffs and efficiency packages. 
An indoor display is usually provided as part of the system, but some smart meters include personal computer connectivity for consumers, so they’ll be able to access all the information directly from their notebooks and desktops.
The introduction of smart meters across Australia will also mean that each house will be solar energy and wind power ready. Currently when installing a home solar power system, the meter often needs replacing with a bi-directional model that can measure electricity being generated as well as consumed.
The Victorian Government has commenced a state-wide rollout of smart  meters for all Victorian electricity customers. This rollout is due to be completed in 2013. A small number of smart meters has already been installed in New South Wales as part of a trial. 
According to a Council Of Australian Governments document (PDF) from earlier this year, the intended “national’ roll-out of smart meters has been lost given that only New South Wales and Victoria have provided a commitment. The Council is particularly concerned that Queensland and Western Australia, the other jurisdictions shown by as likely to realise net benefits from a distributor-led smart meter roll-out, have not committed to a roll-out and may not do so until the results of pilot programs and business cases are tabled in June 2012.