A glenrothes housing estate is being hailed as the site of a breakthrough in the quest for a "smart grid" that will reduce network losses of electricity, saving millions of pounds for consumers.
Network waste is estimated by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) at £3 billion a year in the UK, mainly through "copper losses" (heat in the cable), and theft. As the cost is borne by consumers rather than suppliers, power companies have so far lacked incentives to tackle the issue.
The Glenrothes pilot project, part of Fife Council's Light Fife Green initiative to cut spending and carbon emissions on street lighting, has been a test bed for power line carrier (PLC) technology which transmits data along electricity lines.
The pilot uses two-way communications between pillars and substations to measure the energy saved by dimming the lights, giving a detailed picture of how much power is being used.
The technology – whose principal could potentially also be applied to water and gas – has been pioneered by Hugh Smeaton, the retired Glasgow-born electronics entrepreneur behind multi-million-pound turnover Scots technology companies Fotronic and Linberg. Smeaton, 78, is best known as the developer of Eftpos, the base technology behind the Switch card.
Angus Broadhurst, Fife Council's head of lighting, working with Edinburgh-based metre supplier MeterLink, has installed roadside meters supplying up to 120 lamp posts. A "local data concentrator" (LDC) collects the data from the "master pillars" and allows two-way communications between lighting control in the region and the master pillars. Two-way control opens the possibility of timed dimming of the lights, controlled by smart meters.
Scottish Power, electricity supplier to Fife Council, has agreed to install LDCs in a substation, allowing them to meter up to 40 pillars at once, a UK first.
Smeaton said: "Scotland has a world lead in monitoring the load on low-voltage networks, the key to understanding losses. This is the first step towards tackling network losses which can be as much as 50% in developing countries. This makes power cuts less likely, and in the UK would mean that would we would need fewer wind farms and less fossil-fuel generation, as we would have less wastage to feed."
The entrepreneur has been in talks with Hungarian government agencies with a view to equip the model high-tech village of Aba, southwest of Budapest with technology to meter electricity, water and gas.
If it is proved worthwhile, the Hungarians will roll the technology out across the country, and export it elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Smeaton has also agreed a deal with Irish street lighting company SELC to develop new technology that combines meters and the means to control lighting levels remotely.
Broadhurst said: "Meters aren't commonplace because the cost of installing them [individually] would be prohibitive. That's why Hugh Smeaton's concept has possibilities for us. What he's proposing is that the meter gives you a communicating system that feeds the data back to a central point allowing you to calculate losses."
Smeaton added: "Up until recently meter manufacturers did not record the voltage [electrical pressure] in the current range of smart meters. The lack of knowledge of the pressure at the consumers' meter has made it impossible to analyse the current flowing in low-voltage networks worldwide."
He said that if using techniques similar to those used to find losses in electrical networks, it should be possible to trace gas and water leaks by monitoring pressure at their metering points.
"The first thing doctors do is check blood pressure when illness occurs. Utility networks are identical: by monitoring the pressure on their networks as the product enters the consumer's premises the health of the network - can be checked."