At the heart of mandated European smart meter rollouts is the objective to help consumers use less energy by better understanding their usage.
This core goal - to lighten the load of consumers on their nation state’s resources - was the motivating force behind the Fair Meter project, kick started in the Netherlands in 2015.
Dutch distribution system operators Alliander and Stedin were at the point of tendering for four million electricity and gas meters but recognised a contradiction between the purpose of smart meters and their potentially unsustainable production.
Dirk Bijl de Vroe, Sustainability Advisor at Stedin, said: “We realised the whole reason to switch to smart meters is to reduce energy use so wouldn’t it be fitting to install meters that are more sustainable?”
Inspired by Fair Phone, a sustainability project to improve material circularity in the telco sector, the Fair Meter Initiative became part of the Green Deal launched between a consortium of Dutch utilities – Liander (part of Alliander), Stedin, Juva and Enduris – and the Dutch Government.
The companies decided to challenge smart meter manufacturers at the tendering stage to “investigate what was possible”, says Bijl de Vroe.
He recalls that the first reaction of some vendors was “Is this a joke?”, quickly followed by questions to clarify a definition of ‘fair’.
In order to define what exactly is fair in regards to a smart meter, the consortium created a Fair Performance Ladder.
Fairness required transparency on several aspects and the key principles were better energy use and emissions, materials purchasing processes, transparency of production, labour conditions and safety of resources and raw materials. As part of the initiative, a roadmap and pilot projects were introduced for fair improvements.
Global energy management solutions provider Landis+Gyr was one company that put the concept into research and development to develop a new design for the tender.
Joe Andrews, Senior Product Manager at Landis+Gyr, told Engerati that the company has maturity in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and welcomed the tender from Alliander and Stedin.
Designing a Fair Meter - Landis+Gyr's approach
“CSR is part of our culture and we always want to do more of it. When we saw the tender, it was the first time that we had seen sustainability given concrete commercial value. It was clear that it was more than a box-ticking exercise.”
The utility consortium, which manages roughly 65% of the residential electricity and gas supply in the Netherlands, allowed the vendors additional development time - “We were asking suppliers to support our idea and put in time and effort,” explains Bijl de Vroe.
For Landis+Gyr, the target of designing its new E360 smart electricity meter was to “use less,” says Andrews, and worked with the utilities to understand how to achieve this.
One obstacle was the use of recycled plastic. Bijl de Vroe recalls asking the manufacturer about its willingness to use recycled materials only to discover that the wording of the tender document discouraged it due to a lack of quality guarantees.
The partners also faced challenges to overcome monopolistic supply chains to guarantee that every part of the meter manufacturing was transparent.
Landis+Gyr however showed its commitment by conducting a meter pilot to confirm design features to improve smart electricity meter circularity.
The result is a meter design that will enable a reduction of 220 metric tons of plastic virgin material and more than 50 metric tons of metal from the 2.5m meters supplied to the consortium up to 2020.
“Using smaller lighter components, however doesn’t automatically equate to ‘cheaper’ and thus to a better business case for either smart meter manufacturer or utility.
“The benefit for Landis+Gyr then is the contribution to a social good, as well as an improved competitive edge and the raising of the bar on standards”, says Andrews.
Fair Meters - Stedin's social business case
And from the utility side, Bijl de Vroe from Stedin recognises there a social business case. “How would our customers react if they knew there were labour issues with manufacturing the meters or they contain conflict minerals? By investing in Fair Meters, we can stand up to consumer scrutiny.”
However, embarking on the Fair Meter project did open up the utility to internal criticism. “Every time there is an issue with a meter, there is a reflex to see if it is the Fair Meter project to blame. However, we are fortunate to have C-level support that has ingrained it into our strategy.”, says Bijl de Vroe.
And the learnings from the pilot? Equally strong for metering as well as the broader electronics, says Bijl de Vroe. Landis+Gyr, which is adopting the new design in the entire E360 meter family for the EMEA region, agrees.
Oliver Iltisberger, Executive Vice President at Landis+Gyr EMEA, said: “From an environmental perspective, this pilot is an outstanding result. The savings in one type of plastic alone are equivalent to more than 1,100 tons less CO2e emissions over the next four years. This corresponds to the electricity usage of nearly 700 households.”
Fair Meter pilot - watch the webinar
Stedin’s Dirk Bijl de Vroe, Sustainability Advisor at Stedin and Joe Andrews, Senior Product Manager at Landis+Gyr will both present on an Engerati webinar about the Dutch Fair Meter pilot. Register for the webinar to find out more about procuring and developing sustainable smart meters.