CEDA attendees peered into a future where all consumers could program their electrical appliances through a mobile phone to make energy savings, use their consumption data to shop around for the best energy deal and relieve pressure at peak times on the electricity grid.
Accenture Asia Pacific Utilities Lead Ann Burns said such a future is not too far away. With electrical appliance companies like Fisher and Paykel and Whirlpool aiming for all its products to be 'smart' enabled by 2015, over the next decade Ms Burns said 'smart' grid and meter technology will become part of our everyday lives.
Smart grids are electricity networks that can intelligently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it - generators, consumers and those that do both in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies.
Smart meters are digital devices that record electricity consumption at short intervals and communicate this information back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes. Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the grid system.
Ms Burns described her house of the future where she could program her air conditioning through her iPhone, based on the latest weather reports, or program her most energy intensive appliances, such as the tumble dryer or dishwasher, to operate at night when electricity is off peak and less expensive.
She described a future where her energy consumption data could help her secure competitive tariffs from a range of retailers and said there was great potential in smart technology to enable homes and small businesses to control their energy use, manage their own costs and potentially produce their own energy.
Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism Manager of the Smart Grid Initiative Tom Barry said the smart grid project based in New South Wales as part of the Smart Grid initiative, is playing a key role in helping inform the further implementation of smart technology.
The Smart Grid Initiative that commenced mid 2010 will roll out 1500 meters in 'live' situations in September 2011. Mr Barry said the trial will gather robust information about the costs and benefits of smart grids to inform future decisions by government, electricity providers, technology suppliers and consumers across Australia.
The collection of data during the trial would be available to anyone that wanted to analyse it through the Department or Ausgrid's - the NSW electricity network - website. Mr Barry saw this as crucial for transparency and for communicating the outcomes, benefits and pitfalls of the project to the community.
Responding to Ms Burn's question on the requirements needed for mass deployment of Smart grid technology, Mr Barry said there were regulatory barriers. Referring to one specific issue, he said distribution transmission companies weren't prepared to take the next steps in terms of mass deployment because the expenditure and capital costs of research and development weren't being recognised in their regulated asset bases.
On broader regulatory issues Mr Barry said the establishment of a steering committee, with representatives from transmission through to consumer advocacy, is helping the Government and Ausgrid identify the regulatory barriers and ways to work through them.
Ensuring all sectors of society could reap the benefits of smart technology was recognised by all parties as being critical to the success of mass deployment. Mr Barry said the smart grid initiative was installing an information and technology centre in Newcastle CBD, so the community could directly experience the smart technology and how it could benefit them.
On future accountability for successful consumer education, Mr Barry admitted that as Government they are responsible for ensuring the processes set in place with Ausgrid are honoured. However, there remains a big question mark about who takes control of this post 2013 - when the next Federal election must be held.
Moving over to Victoria, where the role out of smart meters has been clouded in controversy and is currently being audited by the new Liberal State Government, United Energy Distribution and Multinet Gas (UED) Chief Executive Officer Hugh Gleeson gave his perspective.
Highlighting that UED has been rolling out traditional infrastructure for years and has extensive experience in doing so, he said the smart meter program was very different from anything they had done before.
He said the program was about installing a new and highly complex enabling infrastructure platform that doesn't just read energy consumption, but communicates with the grid and allows the distributors to understand what is going on right across the network to be able to improve grid reliability.
Acknowledging some of the issues surrounding smart meters in Victoria, Mr Gleeson said that communication of the program, on reflection, did not receive the attention it deserved.
The Victoria Smart Meter program began in 2009 under the old Labour State Government, and received significant criticism, eliciting strong public concern around the costs of the project and potential higher energy tariffs.
Mr Gleeson said they were surprised by the level of public reaction and the amount of misinformation in the public domain, and that it is up to the whole industry and the Government to deliver effective communications that maintains consistency of message as the program continues to roll out.
With 20 per cent of program rolled out, Ms Burns asked if any benefits had been realised yet.
Using the evolution of the internet as an analogy, Mr Gleeson said in the early days of the internet there weren't a ready pipeline of applications waiting for an enabling technology. It was only when people discovered the potential business benefits that they invested in research and development and applications started to follow.
In the same way Mr Gleeson said that UED were currently building the enabling technology, and smart meters would only really take off when customers could go into retailers and buy energy control systems that synchronised with the smart meter. He stressed that these energy control systems would have to be visual and present energy use data in an easy to use format.
On the ownership and use of energy consumption data, Mr Gleeson was insistent that it should be the property of the customer. However, he said currently there were significant regulatory barriers around allowing customers to access their own data.
Once the barriers were overcome though, all of the speakers recognised the significant benefits the data could bring customers in being able to present their consumptive profile to retailers to receive the best tariff deal.
While all speakers agreed with the potential energy, environmental and consumer benefits smart meters could offer, effective on going communications were deemed absolutely essential for consumer buy in if this technology was to reach its potential in the future.