Ah the humble smart meter. Look how sweet that thing looks, I mean that is seriously cool technology. It means no harm either, really; all it wants to do is sit happily in your home, be it in the cupboard, by the electricity meter or proudly on your table, its sole job to read your energy use in real-time and display it in such a way that even the most technophobic amongst us can understand. So why all the bloody fuss and anger?
For those who aren’t too familiar with the ‘smart meter’, here’s a brief summary of them. Smart meters are clever electronic displays which hook up to your house’s energy systems, such as the electricity and gas meters, allowing it to analyse your daily usage and study how you go about your daily energy guzzling life. These can be plugged into almost any system you could throw at it and come in a HUGE variety of types, ranging from portable displays like the GE-invested Onzo one in the picture above, wall-mounted boxes, integrated meter systems, mobile and desktop applications and more, all with the key goal to make reading your energy usage as easy and simple as possible.
Most governments and energy suppliers in Europe and the US are beginning to roll out these smart meters in the millions to each household, generally for free (not something often advertised by energy companies), with installation taking mere minutes and the effects instant. The UK alone is attempting the world’s biggest smart-meter giveaway, planning to install 27 million starting now, a huge proportion of the country’s households. Considering how small and unobtrusive they are physically, they can be implemented in practically any household environment and barely impinge on your routine way of life.
Now here’s the crucial part - these meters, by reading your energy usage in real-time, can allow you to directly see how much electricity is being used, by what appliance if also hooked into the program, and how much this will cost you. All of these values can be quickly compared to past usage, say yesterday or at the same point last week, so that a proper context is given, rather than the potentially confusing and sterile lists given in your usual energy bills.
From these hubs, which could be your smartphone, TV, computer or wall-display, you can then choose to limit the usage on certain items, set alarms or reminders of when not to use so much energy, such as around peak-load times when everyone is putting the kettle on between Eastenders, and generally control your consumption much more efficiently than previously capable. This is also useful from the suppliers and grid controllers point of views, as they will now be dealing with energy consumption on a much more predictable level, meaning that overloads or blackouts will become less frequent and power stations can be ramped up and down more accurately and avoid the loss of energy and release of heat when it is not necessary.
For instance, you may receive a bill one month stating ‘x’ amount of electricity and gas used. The following month, you utilise the smart meter for the first time and see that the washing machine, cooker and TV are all using a majority share of the energy, or that lights being left on is dribbling money out of your bank account. You turn these appliances off, or begin using them only during times of low-demand on the grid, when prices are slightly lower per kW (known as tariffs, which vary depending on time of day), meaning you consume less AND spend less. The next months bill comes in, and bang, you’ve knocked £40 off of it, all because you began smartly managing your consumption. What could be bad about that?
Unfortunately smart meters, as with most new technology these days, come with some attributes which people don’t like, not one bit. Privacy is by far the biggest of these issues, and has been plaguing the industry ever since it was first created and mass-marketed.
Some believe that, by having a smart meter reading data every hour of the day and sending this information to the energy suppliers is a direct breach of their privacy rights and could potentially put their home at risk. Essentially, governments and companies (and those who hack the data presumably) will now know when you are supposedly out of the house due to the lights being off and nobody sucking juice from the grid. There is also a worry that the so-called ‘kill switch’ built into each device could be used to maliciously shut down a household’s power supply, leaving it open to attack. While this surely is not much different from just looking at the house and seeing there is nobody in, the constant monitoring by the meters is undoubtedly an issue.
In Texas, this was taken to the next level, when reports of locals resisting the installation of smart meters with guns and weapons, claiming they would allow local police and councils to spy on them. Big Brother certainly is a green-minded fellow isn’t he. While this sentiment is felt elsewhere, the use of guns to stop it is thankfully limited to Texas for the moment.
Ways round this problem? Well, on my work experience at GE, who are investing heavily in the smart meter market, I was informed of a couple of ideas which could eliminate, or at least mitigate this apparent flaw. One of the most enticing was to make it so that energy suppliers et al would only snap up data from the meters in brief time periods, say over a minute at night, so as not to see anything else about usage that may brand them as spies. They still get their data, but we still have peace of mind that they’re not seeing every move we make day-in day-out. Others take a more direct approach, charging customers who opt-out of the smart meter a monthly fee, such as in Maine in the US. While this strikes me as slightly extreme and may only serve to anger those not wanting the devices to the point where complete rejection of the technology occurs, it clearly has been seriously considered.
Another of the more hopeful solutions is to set a maximum history on the devices, say a week, so that data lasting any longer than that would be deleted and inaccessible by the supplier, although how this would allow monthly data collection and bill totalling I am not entirely sure. Clearly though this technology is completely dead in the water, as many places have seen high penetration of smart meters in towns, villages and other small urban sites. The reason? The areas tend to be very close-knit and trusting of one another from the start, and so the idea of ‘Big Brother’ doesn’t worry them nearly as much. Fostering this trust through education is key in the battle to get a smart meter into every home.
From where I’m standing, as someone who has seen this technology in action, I cannot see why it is taking so long to implement and be accepted. It works so fluidly and simply with our existing infrastructure and has been proven in multiple places to reduce costs, decrease strains on the grid, lead to more efficient energy systems and benefit practically everybody involved. Coupled with a larger EV network, the entire grid could be turned into a smart program, whereby vehicles are charged only when demand and prices are low, and can feed electricity back into the grid at a cost benefit to the owner, whilst the whole time this is happening, appliances are not left on standby and per capita energy consumption drops perhaps drastically.
What’s even more beautiful is that this can be done NOW, to little cost and no time at all. Energy demand is one side of the energy crisis coin, and we cannot hope to solve our needs issue simply by sticking up wind turbines and solar panels and importing shale gas in from America, the capacity just isn’t big enough to supply that. If we reduce our consumption however, we could not only save millions in revenue, but we may actually make it possible to fulfil the renewable and emission targets without jeopardising the entire world’s hunger for electricity.
It’s a sad thing to see such a great technology lumped with these privacy issues, and don’t get me wrong, I can see what people mean, but if we can’t even get past the initial fears that spies will invade our homes with these things installed, what hope do we have? There’s simply not enough trust in this world anymore; I think the least we have to worry about is an energy company reading our usage every now and then, they benefit from it too don’t forget.