Smarter smart meters from Belgium

Belgium innovates

On 1st of March the Belgian utilities Electrabel launched in collaboration with fifthplay a new kind of smart meters. The basic idea is simple, but great and innovative. The proposed system enables end consumers to individually monitor, visualize, analyze and control the consumption of their electrical devices. Compared to common smart meters, which measure the total household consumption, it creates real added value.It is not strictly speaking a smart meter because it does not

replace the existing meter (analog or digital); it does not meter total household consumption and measures cannot be used for invoices. Functionally it is a domotic installation. But its use is smart grid and energy efficiency oriented. As it smartly meters consumer’s consumption, it deserves the title.

Electrabel is the historical utilities in Belgium, now part of the french holding GDF Suez.

Fifthplay is a tech co fully owned by Niko Group, a Belgian holding owned by the family De Backer. The original company Niko founded in 1919 and led today by the third generation is specialized in domotic solutions.

A new kind of smart meter

The design is nice and actual. Inspired by Apple? Anyway, it’s a good reference.

Gateway

The system includes:

  • Smart energy plugs
  • An internet gateway
  • A web application (for computer, tablet and smartphone).

This video clearly explains the concept, in French, sorry. Or check this one, in Flemish, if you prefer. Some info in English can be found here. More videos in French and Flemish here.

Smart Energy Plug

Smart energy plugs placed between the wall socket and the plug measure the consumption of individual electrical devices. Measurements are wirelessly sent to the internet gateway, which stores info and send it periodically to a remote server via internet (every 15 min). Through a web application or App, the end consumer can then:

  • Remotely monitor real-time consumption (15 min)
  • Program smart energy plugs (timer)
  • Remotely switch on and off smart energy plugs
  • Receive a warning via sms or e-mail in case of a sudden, unforeseen change in consumption.

An expensive gadget

Nice new tech, isn’t it? Now let’s look at economics of energy efficiency devices: investment and savings.

Investments. Electrabel is offering the Smart Energy Box at €139. Throughout the launch month of March 2012, customers will benefit from an introductory discount of €30. Add €3.50 for monthly subscription, i.e. €42 per year. Given a 3 years amortization of the initial capital investment, with the discount, and an average tariff of €0.18, one should save 435 kWh per year to cover the investment, plus the own consumption of the system, i.e. 10 to 20% of the yearly consumption of a benchmark family in Belgium. That’s quite a lot.

Savings. Marketers pretend that thanks to the tool end consumer can control and manage his own energy consumption. We all already do it without tools: we switch on and off when needed. One should neither be a genius nor being advised by a computer to know that consumption is reduced by switching off the light in an unoccupied room. I have no idea neither how much savings one can achieve thanks to the new tool, nor how to estimate them. do you? But I can tell it is peanut compared to the investment.

Market opportunity

The tools look great and functionalities are attractive. But fifthplay is not alone on the market. For instance Ijenko is proposing a similar solution, even broader as it includes also heating systems and security (smoke, motion and doors/windows opening/closing detectors).

Fifthplay’s long-term agreement with Electrabel is of course a good move to secure a big share of the Belgian market, to gather experience and a strong reference. But the international market is open and moving. Necessary technologies are not new and competitors would encounter no issue to develop similar devices. it will be a tough competitive market.

Not to mention there are cheaper solutions that can help you to optimize your electricity consumption (but without internet remote control): standby savers combined with power consumption data loggers offer a cheaper solution, without monthly subscription.

Prediction

Many similar solutions will shortly appear on the market (this prediction is an easy one: it is already the case). Marketers will pretend this is the new tool you need, that you will save money on your consumption bill. Journalists will be enthusiastic.

Few people like me will explain that it is too expensive and it doesn’t worth the investment. We will be criticized, for sure. Here, I hope. I would like to read your opinion. Do not hesitate to comment.

But at the end, it will end like smart meters today: far away from the foreseen success. Not so many end consumers will acquire the system. Enough to officially mention it is not a failure, but not enough to revolutionize the way we live. Criticisms will be voiced. For instance, that it inundates our house with even more wireless com, raising real or fanciful health issues. Until then, first movers companies will gain enough earning not to lose everything (pioneer advantage). Some will even make good money. But followers will lose, except the cheapest ones who will supply the tail of the life-cycle pattern (Growth-Slump-Maturity Pattern, see for instance chapter 14 of the book Marketing Management).

Finally, such tools will gently survive on the market thanks to tech fans not looking at economics. And tech companies will come with a new tool you and me cannot live without. The same story again…

Gauthier Dupont
Dupont Energy Consulting GmbH

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