Innovation often looks like adding more features and capabilities to technology. But utility meters might be a different story.

Since the late 1800s, meter reading has often entailed having utility staff physically visit a meter (sometimes climbing fences or fending off dogs) to record consumption data once every month or two. Starting in the 1970s the first automated meter reading (AMR) meters emerged and let utilities collect data from a truck or via a wand using radio signals from individual meters. And now some utilities use smart meters to collect customer data and share it via mesh networks or Wi-Fi signals. Not having to individually read and manually record each meter’s reading is certainly an improvement, but smart meters aren’t quite delivering the advanced functionality we expected. And they come at a really high price.

While it might seem innovative to invest more into the newest smart meters, it will only get us further enmeshed in a technology that might not be serving us the way we think it is. Utilities need to rethink what innovation looks like for meters and identify who can be the leaders in the change.


Are smart meters actually smart for utilities?

Smart meters solved some problems and introduced convenient benefits (i.e. no more sending trucks to read meters), but they aren’t a perfect solution. As we explain in our Utility Dive article Falling out of love with AMI: Why we need a new approach to smart metering, the technology is often really expensive in terms of time, money, and utility resources.

Of course, the equipment itself is expensive to buy, but it also takes a lot of time to install and maintain. Because the new technology needs to be at each meter, utilities need to replace every meter individually.

You would think that after that time-intensive and expensive installation, the technology would make up for the cost in benefits. But the problems don’t stop at expensive installation. Because meter vendors increasing locate valuable computational features physically in each meter, utilities often need to physically service or replace each meter to access new functionality (this is particularly true of the newest AMI meters that prioritize so-called “edge computation”). This makes the equipment’s effective useful life much shorter in practice because the meter will only be relevant until the next major update.

And relying on latent mesh networks to send meter data to the utilities or third parties means that data is typically delayed by a least a day (sometime up to weeks) even if it’s collected in 15 minute increments, making it difficult or impossible to unlock real-time benefits.

Getting better data

A key benefit to Copper Labs’ approach is getting more frequent data. Copper Labs’ detectors can collect and share accurate data as often as every 30 seconds. For comparison, smart meters typically collect data much less frequently, and that data isn’t typically available immediately. Learn more about Copper’s technology here!

Even when utilities invest the time and money into installing smart meters and brave these challenges, it’s often difficult to use the technology to the best of its ability. As the ACEEE article Smart Meters Gain Popularity, but Most Utilities Don’t Optimize Their Potential to Save Energy explains, the high investments often don’t have the expected benefits.

The article explains how of 52 utilities surveyed, only one was implementing the data from smart meters in all four possible ways:

  • Feedback (giving customers more useful information about their usage so they can change their behavior to save money)
  • Pricing (think time-of-use rates)
  • Data disaggregation (i.e., for pay-for-performance programs)
  • Grid connectivity (i.e., for grid-interactive efficient buildings and load flexibility)

The report goes on to explain that to implement all four uses of smart meter data, “utilities may need to overcome regulatory, technological, and structural barriers.” And they will need to “invest in complementary systems and workforce,” meaning that to benefit from the initial investment into smart meters, utilities need to invest even more in other technologies.


Is there a better solution?

Thinking of new ways to use and analyze customer data is an important part of meter innovation. Housing all these advancements in the meter itself is what’s slowing progress (and blowing up budgets). When meter vendors focus on adding features and functionality to the meter itself, they set utilities up for expensive, time-intensive, chronic meter upgrades. That’s a headache for the utility and for customers, who have to tolerate the installations and then see the costs reflected in their rates.

The alternative that Copper Labs suggests is to keep the meters simple and leave the innovation to external software in the cloud. Instead of updating each individual meter, we can use existing meters—including established reliable AMR technology—to measure electricity, gas, and water usage and apply advanced analytics to process that data in the cloud for a variety of purposes. And this strategy can give us timely and actionable insights. For example, with the Copper Labs detectors, utilities can send high bill alerts in the middle of the bill cycle. That way, customers can change their behavior before being surprised by a high bill, which is especially helpful for low- and medium-income customers who might be struggling to make ends meet.

Most electric utilities have already installed or are currently installing smart meters. But water and gas utilities have the chance to forge a new path to a simpler, more powerful solution by getting better use out of existing AMR meters. These utilities can make the bold choice to invest less time and money while enjoying more benefits like saving resources and improving customer relationships. The change won’t take place overnight, but it can occur faster than replacing all the meters in their territories. And Copper Labs is ready to help make the innovation happen.