Are smart meters really smart?

Use of the phrase ‘smart meters’ when referring to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is part of a trend to add ‘smartness’ to everything – from coffee pots to medical ID cards. And since advertising equates ‘smartness’ with low cost and high value, who would want to remain ‘dumb’ when you can be ‘smart’?

The fact is, however, that advanced meters do not follow the usual rules. To guarantee a positive return on investments, utilities are encouraged to be attentive to where they locate the ‘smartness’ on the continuum between the meter and the applications that use the data, if they want to maximise the value of the data the system produces.

To that end, centralising smartness close to the software applications is smarter than placing it at the meter. Centralised smartness provides the flexibility to adapt programs to customer needs. It reduces risk by minimising the amount of complex equipment in the field. And, with a single action, it completes changes that would require a series of communications, tests, and possibly field adjustments if you were using smart meters.

So we should stop focusing on ‘smart meters’ and focus instead on ‘smart systems’.

Focusing on smart systems does not mean that most – if any – of the foreseeable AMI objectives can be accomplished with the single-read, non-communicating residential meters currently installed throughout most of Europe. AMI demands advanced meters that can:

  • Measure the time series flow of a commodity.
  • Record details and values (voltage, reactive measurements, etc.).
  • Accept commands (turn on service, poll for data, etc.)

Recieving the data from the meteres are centralised smart systems (Energy Data Mangement (EDM) or Meter Data Mangement (MDM) systems) that can:

  • Collect data from any meter-advanced commercial or industrial meters to invertal residential meters.
  • Validate and edit, while estimating any missing meter data (the VEE process)
  • Provide meter data to applications, in any granularity and format required.


There are many benefits in centralising the ‘smartness’ in an AMI programme.

  • Isolating metering from data storage makes it easier and less risky to change meter functions, like changing times for standard or peak rates. Even changing a meter out entirely will not affect downstream applications.
  • Centralising VEE facilitates the use of data the individual meter does not capture, i.e. weather conditions.
  • Using different meters simultaneously – from the most advanced to those that are interval challenged – facilitates getting programmes started before the full meter changeout has occurred in the field.

When utilities isolate the MDM system from both the meter and any single data-using application, other notable benefits are observed. For example, for billing purposes, the MDM system provides refined granular data in neutral formats that give the flexibility to map data into any rate product required – time-of-use; RTP; net metering and so on. It also allows accurate and timely changes to customer contracts, and the ability to adapt billing programmes and patterns to customers’ needs, that would be impossible with meterframed data.

Furthermore, an MDM system allows different applications to use different time intervals and measurements. Planning, grid optimisation, or asset management staff will clearly be more concerned with 15-minute peak demand periods than with the number of peak hours a specific customer uses electricity.


As it expands into the residential sector, AMI will produce ever-larger quantities of data to calculate bills and respond to customer queries. Estimates show that a million customers on an AMI system with hourly reads would generate 12 terabytes of data annually.

It is possible to ‘lose’ much of this data – and this is something that happens regularly when meters process the data they measure – hence defeating the purpose of a system whose value rests on mining all the data for all possible uses.

Scalable, centralised MDM applications that permit easy archiving and retrieval are a ‘best of both worlds’ solution.

Ultimately, the focus of AMI is neither the smart meter nor the smart system; it is the smart utility. AMI systems with the flexibility to respond to current, emerging, and future needs are vital. And designing the system by centralising the ‘smartness’ is a major step in ensuring that AMI accomplishes this goal.