Time to Rethink the Meter

We are transitioning our energy system: replacing the dirty carbon-belching elements with cleaner versions. We are replacing coal and gas fired power plants with solar and wind. We are electrifying cooking and the heating of our water and buildings. We’re swapping our gas-guzzling cars for electric vehicles (EVs). 

This is forcing us to reinvent our power system. Traditionally we have built large central power plants to supply the power we need. We access the power by connecting our homes, businesses and factories to the transmission lines carrying energy from central plants. A meter tells us how much energy we use and how much to pay. Our lights, appliances, air conditioners and commercial equipment connect through the meter directly to electricity coming from the large central power plants. 

The system we are transitioning to works differently. Generation is increasingly distributed. We are putting solar panels on our roofs and parking lots. Increasingly our use of power no longer needs to be directly connected to the generation. We charge our car batteries when we are parked at home or at work for use when we later drive somewhere. We can heat our water when it is most efficient and enjoy our shower or wash our clothes when most convenient. 

Increasingly we are storing energy in many ways distributed across the system. We are putting batteries in our garages and buildings to store energy to use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.   

Our energy system has been centralized, synchronous and analog. The new energy system is distributed, asynchronous and digital. As a result we need to change the way we deliver, manage, measure and charge for energy. 

The current system uses a meter hanging on the side of a building. It’s time to rethink the meter. The meter is built to measure power generated in front and used behind. This doesn’t work in our clean and distributed energy system. 

We need to better account for the energy generated behind and near the meter. We need to better manage the storage of energy throughout the system. The meter doesn’t account for the energy generated from rooftop solar that is used by the home. It doesn’t help to coordinate energy usage to minimize the capacity required from the Grid. It doesn’t help adjust how energy is used and stored based when there is power available from your roof. It doesn’t help you use excess energy when the Grid has too much. The meter doesn’t help to charge your car only when energy is available from your roof or cheap on the grid. The meter doesn’t integrate and optimize the consumption and storage of energy to best deal with the intermittent nature of sun and wind. 

We have technology that can do these things. And do it at the scale needed. Solar panels, wind turbines, long term storage batteries, heat pumps and EVs are cost effective today and getting cheaper every year. The collection of rooftop solar, batteries and managed energy usage (load management) is referred to as Distributed Energy Resources (DERs). There are many effective technologies for managing them. When connected to the energy grid this kind of management is referred to as Distributed Energy Resource Management (DERMs) and when disconnected from the grid, operating completely independently, it is referred to as micro-grids.  

The real barrier to effective deployment to DERs, DERMs, and micro-grids is regulation. We still manage our system as if all power generation needs to be centralized and all usage needs to be directly connected behind a meter. As a result, in sun drenched areas of the country we throw away gigawatts of energy every year.  Under current regulation, a campus of buildings, or community of homes can’t share solar resources, or create a locally managed system to charge vehicles. With our current rate structures, there is no financial benefit for a community or commercial campus to pool resources and optimize generation and use. Regulation prevents accounting and paying for power across multiple “customers”. Worse, it is illegal to even try. Current regulations prevent power from being moved between meters.

Investor-Owned Utilities were created for the old system. They change slowly. They resist any expenses that haven’t been part of the old system. And they have an undue influence over regulation. If meters are consolidated, they lose customers. If distributed energy resources are coordinated and controlled locally, they lose control of power generation. Reforms are clearly a threat to their current business model. 

But we must force change in order to transition our energy system. If we don’t change it will take much longer and cost much more. And we will unnecessarily emit tons of carbon into the atmosphere.  

Imagine if we didn’t change telecom regulations. We would still have landlines connected to AT&Ts central switching facilities. We would still be moving data through modems over analog circuits at 1200 buad data rates. We certainly wouldn’t have the Internet: connecting any site, anywhere in the world, anytime we wish from a device in our hand. Ma Bell and other incumbent telecom providers resisted the regulation changes that allowed new technologies and competitive services. But those changes allowed us to invent the future without sacrificing reliable access. In fact, it increased access and decreased the cost of telecom services. It allowed us to create abundant nearly limitless data services.

It is time to rethink the meter. We must change our energy regulations. It is time to integrate and manage distributed energy resources. It is time to change the way we measure and pay for energy. Our energy system can’t be a collection of small customers accounted for with a meter on a 200-amp analog service panel. We need to create a system of interconnected collections of integrated distributed energy resources. This is how we will achieve a carbon free energy system. A system that is less expensive than our fossil fuel system has been. And, more importantly, a system that provides abundant nearly limitless energy services.

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