TIMES Pieces: Smart but Fair Meters

Courtesy of the Fair Meter Initiative

The European Union is looking to replace analogue energy meters in 80 percent of homes with digital versions – called smart meters – by 2020. Dutch company, Fair Meter, is looking to assist this process in a sustainable way, offering smart meters that are ethically and sustainably produced.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 09.01.14

The European Union is looking to replace analogue energy meters in 80 percent of homes with digital versions – called smart meters – by 2020. Dutch company, Fair Meter, is looking to assist this process in a sustainable way, offering smart meters that are ethically and sustainably produced. We chat with Hans Nooter from the company to discuss their goal of changing the mentality of the electronics manufacturing industry.

Smart meters are popping up in homes across the world as governments, including the US and the EU, introduce legislation or guidelines that encourage users to switch from analogue to digital. Proponents of the smart meter movement argue that the systems help people monitor their energy use more precisely via real-time data, analyse how they can change their consumption habits, save money on their power bills and reduce the risk of power cuts.

However, with the increasing uptake of new digital systems, one group of Dutch entrepreneurs started to question the impact on the planet the switch to smart meters might have. Despite recent strides made in ensuring that supply chains in the electronic manufacturing industry were fair and just (such as the slow elimination of conflict minerals from certain gadgets), using sustainable methods is still not the default approach. Thus, the Fair Meter Initiative was born which looks to set an example within the smart metering and electronics manufacturing industries by encouraging smart meter producers to create products that place an emphasis on ethically-sourced materials, fair labour conditions, user data protection and minimal CO2 emissions.

We chat with Hans Nooter of the Fair Meter Initiative about their mission.

Image: Fair Meter Initiative

What led you to start the Fair Meter Initiative?

The upcoming massive roll out of smart energy meters will give way to mass production of electronic energy meters and also result in the phase out of obsolete mechanical meters worldwide. As the production of electronics has large environmental and social impacts in the supply chain, we decided to call for attention.

What processes do you use to ensure that the Fair Meters are sustainably produced and materials used are ethically sourced?

As an initiative launched by Dutch DSOs (distribution system operators), our tendering processes are an important way of calling for ‘good electronics’. Apart from tendering, we also had several workshops and a stand at the Amsterdam European Utility Week 2012 and 2013 [where] we raised questions and were in dialogue with a broad audience.

Last year, so-called Green Deal was signed by several partners including the Dutch government departments on economic affairs, environment and infrastructure, three Dutch DSOs, smart city Amsterdam and Waag society. As deliverables of this deal we are working on a (raw) materials label and pilots aimed at innovation.

On your website, you often mention that you received input from external sources when developing your ideas – how important has collaboration been in the process?

Raw materials. Image: Fair Meter Initiative

Up until now collaboration has been a key element in the process. Not only with first tier stakeholders but also with partners and stakeholders that can bring quite different opinions and orientation to the process. In our opinion it’s important to [have a] dialogue with business and supply chain partners in order to create and implement innovative and sustainable solutions. This means that you have to be part of the change you want to see.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced so far with the Fair Meter Initiative and how have you overcome them?

Integrating Fair/ sustainable development in a business context and finding the right balance between development of the initiative and primary business processes (and integrating those). The Fair Meter Initiative aims not only to develop a physical meter. By developing FAIR meter aspects, the initiative aims to create an understanding of the necessity and possibility of ‘good electronics’. Communicating this mindset-change through the development of a physical meter has been, and still is, a major challenge.

There are various levels of abstraction associated with the Fair Meter Initiative: the development of the physical meter is a tangible process but new business models associated with a concept such as ‘circularity’ [whereby the focus is on maximum reuse of a product and its materials once that product has reached the end of its lifecycle] are very abstract. Prioritising these various levels of abstraction, and turning them into tangible results is a challenge.

Image: Fair Meter Initiative

What has been the community reaction so far?

As with many other fair chain initiatives, people have no clear idea [of] the potential impacts of electronics. We are in touch with small NGOs, creative industries and suppliers [who] contribute from their perspective and competencies.

What kind of long-term impact could the Fair Meter Initiative have on the industry?

We hope that we will have impact on the industry by showing that sustainable practices can be seamlessly integrated into an overall business approach. Our tender process addresses the “fair” ambition by asking for ambition, expertise and fair solutions in the meter market.
It would also be great if transparency in practices, including the way social and environmental impacts are dealt with along the whole of the supply chain, could gain attention from businesses and the public.

Maybe our call for fair will also contribute to the way we think about the form and/or functionality of our meters and the meaning of this in the context of a sustainable energy system.

TIMES Pieces is a monthly editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces

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