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Will Electricity be “Too Cheap to Meter?”

The history of the electricity meter has been quite interesting to say the least.  The notion that electricity would be so abundant and cheap that meters would be obsolete was captured  in1954, when the Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, was speaking about the impending development of nuclear power.  Strauss declared in the New York Times the prophecy that nuclear power would, within 15 years, deliver “electrical energy too cheap to meter.” 

The modern utility industry sprouted in the late 1800’s and it wasn’t until 1894 when Thomas Edison’s protégé Samuel Insull discovered on a trip to England the notion of an electricity meter.  It turns out the local power generator in Brighton, England invented a metering device that would measure how much energy each customer used.  Insull, who at the time was working for Thomas Edision at the Edison General Electric Company in the US, was charging customers by the number of light bulbs they owned. 

This notion of people paying for how much energy they used transformed the industry and ultimately helped shape the formation of how utilities around the world pay for their usage with an additional charge covering the capital invested in the infrastructure.  The meter became the “middleman”…the interface between the customer and the generating company.

The notion that electricity will become too cheap to meter still persists today.  Bill Gates has started a new company called TerraPower, and is working on a revolutionary technology that uses “nuclear waste” (depleted Uranium).  There are many others declaring the widespread growth of distributed generation in the form of solar, wind, nuclear fusion technology (not fission used by today’s plants), biomass and other alternative energy sources will ultimately relegate the modern utility, and the electric meter to the graveyard.

Ironically, with all these predictions in the headlines, the meter is quietly transforming  into a new and improved version of itself.  But, will this new and improved “smart meter” stand the test of time, or will it fizzle out like a New Year’s Celebration sparkler?  I believe we are certainly in a state of transformation in how we power our world.  We all know that technology evolves exponentially and that these “crazy ideas” of a world where electricity is too cheap to meter will most likely come.  The only question is when.

Even the most ardent supporters of these new energy supply alternatives concede we are likely at minimum a few decades away from widespread adoption of these paradigm changing technologies.  In the meantime, the electricity supply and demand curves will rapidly converge over the next several years, and thus, the importance of the smart meter and all the benefits they bring to ensuring a cheap, reliable and sustainable source of power will be unquestionable.

While the headlines and hype about large smart meter rollouts seem to have faded a bit, I believe these intelligent devices will slowly and methodically continue to propagate the electricity grids across the developed world. 

Sometime in the next decade we will read the headline that 80% of the world’s electricity meters are now smart.  This headline will go largely unnoticed, as by then; smart meters and smart grids will be taken for granted.  The innovative ideas and technologies that accompany these intelligent devices will help us better manage the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of this civilization building commodity we call electricity. 

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