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Govt Applauds 'Smart' Meters, But Will Wait 6 Months For Report

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Gerry Brownlee. Pic: NZPA
Gerry Brownlee. Pic: NZPA

Wellington, June 25 NZPA - Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee says he will wait six months to see whether the Electricity Commission advises regulating for fully-enabled "smart" electricity meters or to just leave the choice up to electricity companies.

"The Electricity Commission has to report to me by December 2009 on smart meters," he said today. "I look forward with interest to see if the report calls for a more regulated approach to smart meters or reliance on industry guidelines".

Mr Brownlee's go-slow approach to the issue came despite being warned by Parliament's environmental watchdog, Jan Wright, of a need for regulations and standard-setting.

She said most of the 1.3 million new meters to be installed by 2012 will actually be "dumb meters" -- good for electricity company profits but little help in saving electricity or costs for householders.

Dr Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said delays by the Government could mean consumers were stuck with the wrong technology: "I recommend that the Government takes a more hands-on approach".

Electricity companies deploying "smart" meters are choosing to skip functions crucial to delivering environmental and consumer benefits, said Dr Wright.

"This is not surprising given that encouraging more efficient electricity use appears to offer little financial benefit to retailers," she said. "Regulatory intervention is needed to ensure environmental and consumer benefits".

Smart meters, providing two-way communication between households and electricity retailers, could help households use electricity more efficiently, by cutting consumption and peak demand, carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental impacts.

Mr Brownlee said the report "raises a number of matters for the Government to consider".

"The Government supports the roll-out of smart meters but they have to be genuinely smart and not just revenue tools for the retailers," he said. " If they are just an opportunity for retailers to extract a bigger price then they are questionable.

"I see merit in smart meters being fully enabled with chips and that they operate to a universal or open access protocol. The meters need to be compatible with retail switching choices made by consumers."

The Green Party also called on the Government to show leadership.

Jeanette Fitzsimons, the party's energy spokeswoman, said it was "unthinkable" that retailers had already installed 150,000 smart meters with only half a brain that served nobody's interests but their own. "Just a few dollars more per installation would give homeowners power over their electricity bills, saving money right across the economy," she said. "Instead it's a rort by the power companies".

Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority chief executive Mike Underhill said smart meters could make it easier for consumers to use their appliances to become energy efficient.

A big industry lobby, the Major Electricity Users' Group, said the commissioner's call for government intervention was "a complex issue".

Work was needed on whether the retailer or individual households should decide how smart a new meter should be when first installed.

Labour's energy spokesman Charles Chauvel said smart meters needed to be able to deliver two-way communication, and over time, to be paired with "smart appliances" that can be programmed to switch on and off to take advantage of lower power prices.

"The potential in good standards for smart meters lies in for energy savings ... I hope Gerry Brownlee doesn't miss this opportunity," Mr Chauvel said.

Genesis Energy, which began rolling out new meters in February, said it will install 500,000 over five years, with scope for consumers to manage their consumption during peak and off-peak periods.

Genesis Energy general manager of retail, Dean Carroll, said the first challenge was to introduce tariffs later this year that reflect daily price changes.

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