NBN not mandatory for ‘smart grids’

One of the claimed  benefits of the national broadband network (NBN) is that it will act as an enabler for ‘smart grids’.  ‘Smart grids’  have been described as electricity distribution networks that:

use sensors, meters, digital controls and analytic tools to automate, monitor and control the two-way flow of energy across operations—from power plant to plug. A power company can optimize grid performance, prevent outages, restore outages faster and allow consumers to manage energy usage right down to the individual networked appliance. Smart grids can also incorporate new sustainable energies such as wind and solar generation, and interact locally with distributed power sources, or plug-in electric vehicles.” (IBM 30/11/2009)

In his NBN advocacy,  Senator Conroy has claimed smart grids can make a significant contribution to helping Australia reduce carbon emissions, and that broadband is an important enabler of future smart grids in Australia.

But do we need the NBN to implement smart grids? Recent developments would  suggest not.

The current ‘smart meter’ roll out in Victoria will rely on wireless connectivity for transmitting data from the meters. Likewise, the planned ‘smart grid’ deployment in NSW by Energy Australia also utilise wireless.[1] Both these initiatives will be deployed ahead of the NBN roll out, utilising technology that is available now. Electricity companies therefore clearly have economically viable  options  already for monitoring and managing their networks – without the NBN.

From the consumer perspective, it’s also questionable how much of an improvement the NBN can make.  Power monitoring tools like Google’s Powermeter are capable of functioning over current internet connections. The main barrier to greater adoption of household energy monitoring tools,  like Google Powermeter, would seem to be the lack of participation by Australian energy companies. This is  something that may change as their smart meter roll outs progress.

All this  suggests the NBN isn’t really a mandatory requirement for ‘smart grid’ deployments. While there may be large benefits through the enablement of smart grids via broadband, the incremental contribution of the NBN may not be as large as the government is hoping.


[1] Interestingly, both the NSW and Victorian deployments will utilise WiMAX, facilitated by 2.3 Ghz spectrum purchases from Wireless Broadband Australia.

2 thoughts on “NBN not mandatory for ‘smart grids’

  1. I think you are confusing “smart grids” with “smart metering.”
    The important thing about NBN is that it creates ubiquity of access, which is what the power companies need to do as you suggest and deploy more applications for power management, and create new applications for controlling power and appliances remotely.

  2. Phil.

    Re ‘smart grids’ v ‘smart metering’. ‘Smart grids’ are obviously made up of more than just ‘smart meters’ at the end user premises.

    Re: ubiquity. Yes, the NBN will be ubiquitous. But there is more than one way to achieve that. As the current deployments in NSW and Vic show, the NBN isn’t a mandatory requirement for smart grids (or smart meters specifically) because energy companies are already finding alternatives that will enable them to get these initiatives going ahead of the NBN.

    There’s also a couple of other points that may be worth considering.

    1)Connection of the ‘smart meter’ to the NBN. My understanding of the solution in Victoria is that it involves a self contained wireless metering unit being retrofitted in to the existing meter box. i.e. it does not require access to the customers premises (typically) and requires no connection/integration in to another network. Will the method of connecting the smart meter (presumably still in the meter box) to the NBN be as simple?

    2) Security – I also wonder whether there are any security or resiliency benefits in having the electricity monitoring and metering on an independent network. That’s an area outside my expertise so I’d be interested in whether there eare any differences from that point of view.

    At the end of the day – yes, the NBN could be used as an enabler. But it’s not mandatory and given the alternatives, the marginal value from the NBN in this area may be low.

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