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UK gov's smart meter dream unplugged: A 'colossal waste of cash'

Everything you need to know about the kit that'll know everything about you

Analysis On 23 June, the village of Alfriston in the South Downs hosted Get Wired, an event celebrating old-fashioned wired analogue power meters – or, more accurately, opposing their replacement by new wireless "smart" meters.

Organiser Stop Smart Meters UK is worried about radiation, privacy, safety, higher bills and people losing control over their homes.

The group’s fears are not shared by most politicians, and certainly not by the power industry. It plans to put 53 million smart meters into homes in England, Wales and Scotland by 2020 (Northern Ireland has its own policy).

The rollout will go far beyond a European directive that asks conditionally for 80 per cent coverage by this date. But some experts are raising doubts about the plans – and not just the health risks.

The UK’s smart meter scheme was introduced by Labour leader Ed Miliband, when he was energy and climate change secretary. The last government had a habit of chucking big technology schemes at problems; the difference is that this one made it off the drawing board – unlike a 2006 brainwave from Ed’s brother David for carbon rationing credit cards – and survived the current government’s cull of such schemes, which took out the likes of identity cards.

Your home, their network

The Coalition government has delayed and tweaked Miliband’s scheme, but still wants energy suppliers to replace each ‘dumb’ gas and electricity meter with a ‘smart’ one.

One smart meter in each home will send power usage information to a new Data Communications Company, which will go live in autumn 2015. That usage data will be transmitted from homes largely using Blighty's mobile networks – although wired communications will be used in particular locations including blocks of flats.

The wide-area networking technology and the meters themselves are still being procured, with each energy supplier buying its own meters, so many technical details have not yet been decided.

One detail that has been confirmed is for a "home area network" (HAN) in each house, using ZigBee networks at 2.4GHz and 868MHz. The HAN will allow the main meter both to act as a relay for a second meter’s usage monitoring, and to serve information to an in-home display (IHD) so Britons can monitor their power consumption from their sofas.

The suppliers are enthusiastic about the scheme’s potential to save both the public, and them, money. Estimated bills and visits from meter readers will be a thing of the past, says Lawrence Slade, chief operating officer of trade body Energy UK, and the visibility of consumption will stop people wasting power: “One of the reasons we’re doing this is to help consumers understand their bills better,” he says.

While he confirms that a smart meter would be used in the process of cutting people off from their supply, Slade adds that their introduction should lead to fewer disconnections, as the improved data will make it possible to spot and manage payment problems earlier.

But what if someone other than power companies, such as foreign governments, worked out how to hack into the meters and cut people off? Slade says this “should not be able to happen”, while conceding “I don’t think you can say, hand on heart, that nothing will ever happen”.

The system is designed to be secure end to end, with data encryption and no identification of customers in what is sent.

Leaving aside the possibility of Kim Jong-un flicking London’s off-switch, smart meters will mean more data being collected on the public and being available to the authorities. Plans on this have shifted, so that suppliers will only get monthly usage data from customers unless they have explicitly agreed it being passed on for each 30 minute period. Also, there will not be a central database of usage – the Data Communications Company will pass information to suppliers rather than store it.

UK Energy’s Slade says that customers allowing suppliers access to 30 minute ‘granular’ data could save money by using ‘time of use’ tariffs and choosing when to run power-draining appliances. Such tariffs would be souped-up versions of the long-established Economy 7 deals that use cheaper nighttime electricity to power storage heaters, potentially changing the cost of power each half-hour – and could be a money saver for those who can choose when to run power-hungry devices, such as home-charged electric vehicles.

Wasting energy, wasting money

As for the police and spies getting their hands on usage data, it turns out that they already can – it’s just that smart meters will make it rather more interesting. Having said that, as customers have to opt-in to 30 minute granularity – which will anyway be sent in batches, rather than every half hour – smart meters may not be quite the real-time invasion of privacy they seem.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory, has written [PDF] about the privacy and security issues of smart metering in the past. But he says: “There are many other systems whose privacy aspects worry me more. The main problem about smart metering is that it won't save energy and so it's a colossal waste of money.”

These fears were detailed by Alex Henney - a consultant, critic of the government and author of a book on the UK’s energy market - during an appearance before Parliament’s energy and climate change committee in May. Henney, who has worked on smart meter projects since the 1980s, says that Italian power company Enel started introducing the hardware in 2000, and by 2008 had 32 million meters installed.

“In 2007, HM Government said it would have a roll-out of meters within 10 years. It’s not going to start roll-out until 2015,” he tells The Register. “We’re still faffing around. It’s incredible incompetence.”

Henney thinks the government has made numerous mistakes. He criticises on cost grounds both the use of mobile networks, rather than power line carrier technology, to send usage information and the introduction of meters by the suppliers rather than by the distribution network operators which manage local power systems.

UK Energy’s Slade says that mobile networks are the cheaper option in most cases, and defends giving suppliers responsibility by saying that they have the relationships with customers, letting them offer training when installing the meters and IHDs.

Henney finds the displays particularly irksome. “I think it’s a complete waste of money,” he says, arguing that a large proportion of the uninvited devices, each worth around £25, will be ignored. “It’s just chucking money away. But DECC [the government's energy department] doesn’t give a damn.”

Instead, he thinks consumers should buy them if they want them.

“The research we’ve seen is that if you just have a meter installed and an IHD popped through the letterbox, the IHD isn’t installed and you don’t get the benefits,” responds Slade.

More generally, Henney thinks the economic argument has been overstated to get a desired political answer. He compares a 2007 assessment of smart metering by Mott MacDonald, which produced a net present value of minus £4bn, to a civil service assessment which came in at £4.9bn to the good.

His attempt to get access to the results of a Cabinet Office major project review of smart metering under Freedom of Information has produced only a heavily redacted version.

We're not energy hounds after all

Henney reckons the benefits of adjusting demand are being oversold. This is a key part of their appeal: as well as allowing power prices to vary by time of day, smart meters could in the future turn appliances down or off through home area networks.

Electricity has to be used as it is created or stored in a suitably-equipped Welsh mountain – and power storage stations such as Dinorwig use around a quarter of the power they store through their operation. The UK’s big shift to wind power reduces carbon emissions, but makes supply less reliable. Evening out the supply would mean a fleet of expensive stand-by power stations, able to fill the gap between supply and demand when the wind doesn’t blow – so turning down demand is an attractive alternative.

But Henney says that Britain has less potential for home demand management than other countries. Firstly, many houses use gas for their big adjustable power needs, such as heating and cooking. Secondly, Britain’s clement climate keeps domestic power needs relatively low, whereas Norway (say) uses four times the electricity as Britain per person through heating, and Texas using five times due to air-conditioning.

Finally, Henney says that usage is set to drop through the development of increasingly efficient kit. “There is scope to reduce the consumption of electricity by about 20 per cent by 2020, merely by bettering the appliances we use,” he says.

As mentioned earlier, there is a final reason for smart metering: Europe. Energy UK says that the country is bound by a European directive to put smart meters in 80 per cent of homes by 2020 – although the government and industry is hoping to get much nearer to 100 per cent. But Henney says that the directive only requires the roll-out if it is economically viable – which he thinks it isn’t, with other countries sitting on their hands: “So far, the Germans have done bugger all.”

Lawrence Slade of Energy UK sees the plans as a chance to convince Britons to cut their power use and decarbonise the economy: “We see it as a once-in-a-generation chance to engage with every customer.”

Britons are set to get engagement, along with a smart meter phoning in usage, a live display on the wall and an in-home network to join it all together. Whether the UK will welcome this remains to be seen. ®

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