A Dutch consortium led by the two largest grid operators in the Netherlands has introduced an initiative to make the world a better place. The idea behind the Fair Meter initiative is to only use ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable devices within the catchment area of the consortium – thereby hopefully changing the entire electronics market.
Revolutions begin at a grassroots level. That is why Alliander and Stedin have set out to change the world from the Netherlands. The consortium, led by the two largest energy providers of the Dutch kingdom, dreams to renew the entire electronics sector. Together, the two companies supply 4 million households with electricity and gas, and the entire consortium covers roughly 65% of the 7 million households in the Netherlands. A large enough number to arouse the subcontractors’ interest in rethinking and redefining the supply chain.
“However, if we are installing a dozen million meters aimed at indirectly improving the world, why not aim for a meter that also has a directly positive impact on our world?”
Dominique Hermans, Circular Economy Advisor, Alliander.
The idea for the Fair Meter was conceived in 2013, when Alliander and Stedin wanted to place a purchase order of several million smart meters as part of a major project:
“It stems from realising that the smart meter is part of the European policy to tackle climate change. The idea is that by raising the consumers’ awareness of their energy use, the meter can indirectly stimulate energy savings. However, if we are installing a dozen million meters aimed at indirectly improving the world, why not aim for a meter that also has a directly positive impact on our world?” asks Dominique Hermans, Circular Economy Advisor at Alliander. And thus a vision was born, a vision of a device that would – right from the raw material extraction down to its disposal – conform, as far as possible, to social and ecological ideals.
A joint target
As soon as the idea had taken shape, an alliance was built between Alliander, Stedin, Delta and Westland Infra and a Green Deal with the Dutch Government was signed in 2013.
And so, as part of the national implementation of EU directive on smart grids and meters, the newly founded consortium and the government signed a contract that promises to only use subcontractors who can prove their devices have been produced fairly.
In the run-up to this agreement, a number of hurdles had to be overcome. First of all, it had to be defined what fairness in the supply chain actually means. Then, the industry was to get on board.
“We could not be sure if there were any issues with our smart meters in those areas, nor were we able to rule it out. So, our first priority was to ask for transparency from our suppliers.”
Reinout Wissenburg, Public Affairs & Sustainability, Stedin.
“We had to be clear about what we meant by ‘fair’, as it was a new concept in this industry,” explains Reinout Wissenburg, responsible for Public Affairs & Sustainability at Stedin. “And so we approached the four known unknowns of electronics: labour conditions, conflict minerals, scarcity and e-waste. In essence, we could not be sure if there were any issues with our smart meters in those areas, nor were we able to rule it out. So, our first priority was to ask for transparency from our suppliers.”
Involvement of the industry was not always easy. “We had to create a vocabulary to discuss ‘fair’ aspects: why do we want it and what do we mean by it?” recalls Wissenburg. “We developed the Fair Performance Ladder to provide support and guidance for us and our suppliers.”
The process of the fair smart meter goes far beyond the standard scoring of Corporate Social Responsibility in the procurement process. “By putting the fair approach centre-stage in our procurement policy and by continuing to talk about it and ask questions, suppliers slowly started to realise that we are serious about this.” Nonetheless, the new requirement was not always met with understanding. Some suppliers were open-minded and interested in the topic, others less so. “In the end, what ultimately boosted the whole initiative, was Landis+Gyr agreeing to start a Fair Meter pilot. This really shifted things into place and showed people that we are serious about this. It allowed us to start exploring the many inspiring options to create a smart meter with a truly positive and fair story. To literally change the world, one meter at a time,” beams Wissenburg.
The fair meter is a circular meter
But where to start? For Landis+Gyr, the majority of the requirements could be considered as business as usual, since the Corporate Social Responsibility has been deeply embedded in all its operations for years. However, the Fair Meter Initiative can be seen as a valuable push to strive forward and to increase the speed for further improvement. “The question is, over which of the four issues does a company have the most influence? In the case of Landis+Gyr, it made most sense to take a closer look at the construction and design of the devices and to examine the potential for saving material and for using recycled materials,” says Joe Andrews, Senior Product Manager at Landis+Gyr.
The Fair Meter Team from left: Dominique Hermans (Alliander), Joe Andrews (Landis+Gyr), Reinout Wissenburg (Stedin), Dirk Bijl de Vroe (Stedin) and Marcel de Nes Koedam (Alliander).
As part of the Fair Meter initiative Landis+Gyr carried out a pilot project on Smart Meter Circularity, focusing in the use of resources and raw materials during the life-cycle of a smart meter. The target of the pilot was to identify fair meter characteristics that could be translated to next generation meters and production, operation and use and re-cycling processes associated to smart meters.
In the scope of the pilot, benchmark and baseline of a fair meter has been created, a number of feasibility studies and analysis on the topic have been carried out. Findings show a great potential to improve circularity in smart meters, and include major achievements, including a radical redesign with vast reduction of weight of the meters and inherent modularity in design.
The first breakthroughs were achieved in a relatively short time. The Landis+Gyr development team made remarkable progress, especially with reducing the amount of raw materials used. “Compared to a previous meter type, the Landis+Gyr team managed to drastically reduce the amount of materials used in the manufacture of the new E360 e-meter, thereby also drastically lowering the environmental impact,” says Reinout Wissenburg. In the first phase, the plastic used to make the E360 was reduced by 21% and the metal by 10%. But the development did not stop there. The developers at Landis+Gyr had set themselves a much more ambitious target: to reduce the amount of plastic by at least one third and the amount of metal by almost 60%. In addition, the proportion of recycled plastic was to be further increased.
Positive feedback from the market
The reactions by the market proved that the Fair Meter idea was not merely a drop in the ocean. “The group of concerned citizens is growing, fuelled by the visibility of the climate goals and the sustainable development goals,” says Dominique Hermans, explaining all the positive feedback. “Most people say: of course, this is what needs to be done, good work and please continue your efforts!” So the Fair Meter initiative could actually be the start of a much bigger movement. “The ‘big audacious goal’ is a truly sustainable electronics supply chain – throughout the industry of electronic assets, from laptops, phones (as already supported by some brands) to household appliances,” says Hermans with one eye on the future. “And that is what we believe in: creating a better world together, one Fair Meter at a time!”