China's Smart Meter Boom Will Lead to 1B Installations by 2020

The number of smart meters installed worldwide will reach 963 million by 2020, largely due to China's aggressive effort to modernize its electric grid.

By 2015, the installed base will reach 535 million units -- more than twice as much as an earlier forecast from Pike Research.

These devices can track energy consumption in real-time and offer a means of two-way communication that can help utilities and customers better manage energy use. That communications capability will allow smart meters to play a significant role in the emerging area of activity we call VERGE: the intersection of the vehicle, information, building and energy sectors.

"It's almost double the initial forecast because of the growth in the Asia region, which by 2020 will make up half of that installed base," said Bob Gohn, Pike's Smart Grid Research Director.

China's smart grid plans have been adopted beyond expectation, Gohn said, but he noted that the units are now being counted in the forecast because they are more sophisticated than previously anticipated.

"What's being deployed in China just barely meets our criteria of what we call a smart meter," Gohn said. "It's not entirely clear if they will be applied the way we do everywhere else." 

Pike described China's smart meter deployment clip as a "truly astonishing rate." A separate study from GCIS China Strategic Research estimated that the country's smart meter market grew by more than 25 percent last year alone. Some worry, however, that the massive push because of the country's purchase programs and environmental goals will have a negative impact on the quality of the smart meters as manufacturers rush to meet the demand and compressed pricing.

Europe's own environmental policies aim to push smart meter penetration to 80 percent by 2020, which would give the region the world's highest penetration rate. Leading the charge is Italy, which to date has rolled out the largest smart meter deployment in the world. "This will stay that way for a while," Gohn said. "They finished that deployment with 30 million (units)."

By 2020, smart meter penetration in North America will fall into the 60 to 70 percent range. "The peak period for those shipments will occur in the 2012 time frame," Gohn said, driven by the mandated deployments in states such as California and Texas, but smart meter deployments will also benefit utilities, which may enjoy lower cost of grid management.

"At its heart," Gohn said, "it's about driving better efficiency and conservation versus building more power plants."

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Christian Haugen.