Smart meters? A dumb idea

A mini-computer that nags you about your energy use and allows suppliers to remote-control your freezer? No thanks.

Rob Johnston

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Topics Science & Tech

When something is warmly embraced by both the Conservative Party and the green movement, it is probably both expensive and useless (for evidence of this, see Zac Goldsmith). If it is also endorsed by energy companies wet-dreaming of bumper profits, a Labour government that yearns for authoritarian tentacles in every home, and Lib Dems with a misty-eyed vision of personal autonomy, then we can only really be talking about one thing: ‘smart’ meters. In these humble devices are invested the hopes of all of the above for beating both climate change and an energy crisis.

A smart meter is, essentially, a computer to which every household appliance is connected by a wireless network, including computers, heating and air conditioning, TVs and DVRs (digital video recorders), video games, home security systems, intelligent appliances, fax machines, telephones and any other digital device with a connection (1). Intelligent appliances will also include fridges, freezers, washing machines, tumble driers and dishwashers. Models with their own internet (IP) addresses, capable of wireless control by a smart meter, are already available (2).

The UK’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, announced last week that all 26million households in the UK will have their traditional electricity and gas meters replaced by smart meters by 2020. This will be done by energy suppliers, with customers paying higher bills to meet the cost. The meters themselves will not save customers any money, but the nagging reminder of energy costs may offset the expense – in a decade or so.

The devices will enable energy suppliers to vary gas and electricity rates hour by hour as their costs fluctuate. These price changes will show up instantly on smart meters so consumers can turn appliances on or off, plan energy use for when rates are lower, or even switch suppliers instantly as competing offers are displayed.

Government and industry publicity for the devices imagines smiling families gathered around glowing smart meters to watch their energy consumption and carbon dioxide production ‘live’, with the enthusiasm usually reserved for one of those Simon Cowell atrocity exhibitions that pass for Saturday night entertainment. From a dingy cupboard or outside box, the smart meter will emerge into the light as an electronic status symbol, prominently displayed in the home.

So far, so empowering.

What the advance PR fails to acknowledge is that the smart meter is a two-way digital highway. Energy companies will be able to disconnect feckless households instantly (and, of course, fairly and accurately, given the fierce dedication to reliable customer identification for which they are famous – NOT). But smart meters will also mean that home appliances can be remotely controlled. If your gas supplier feels your home is too warm in winter, it can bump up the price of gas to encourage you to be greener. Or, if electricity production is too low, they can simply turn down your thermostat by signal to the smart meter.

Smart meters will enable all sorts of dodgy policy wonkery to be realised. For example, the word ‘rationing’ is toxic to political parties, but the Institute for Public Policy Research (once known as New Labour’s brain) is quite keen on the idea of personal carbon trading (PCT), despite public hostility (3). Every individual in the country would be allocated an equal number of ‘free’ carbon permits annually. These permits would be surrendered whenever energy is purchased – for domestic heating and electricity, and for petrol or diesel for transport. Businesses would buy permits from government in auctions and individuals with ‘low carbon lifestyles’ could sell surplus permits to the more CO2 profligate.

Over time, the number of permits available would be reduced to lower CO2 emissions (gradually). Until now, the government has considered PCT too expensive to set up and run (estimates range from £1.4billion to £2.6billion) (3). But smart meters make rationing practical and inexpensive. There is no need for a complex system to distribute permits if the government can simply order all central heating or washing machine temperatures to be turned down, or even turn off your lights if your consumption indicates you may have hoarded the old 100-watt and 200-watt light bulbs – all by remote control.

The temptation for governments will be to meet CO2 targets and make up for poor planning of energy infrastructure by remote-control rationing. And if such powers are available for energy rationing, how long before local government and law enforcement will also want in on the act? Imagine noise abatement officials turning off stereos or police turning off power to suspected cannabis farms. Petty bureaucrats will have undreamt-of opportunities for meddling.

Smart meters are also an essential part of a proposed ‘smart grid’, which is an acknowledgement that wind power (and wave, tidal and other intermittent sources) simply cannot be incorporated into the existing national electricity grid. Some wind turbines in the UK, particularly in remote areas, are not actually connected to electricity grids, they just spin away aimlessly. If all the UK’s offshore wind turbines were connected to the grid it would collapse – it would be like suddenly adding a couple of passenger buses to a Formula One motor race. If all of Germany’s large offshore wind farms were connected to the grid, a storm in the Baltic would shove so much electricity into the European grid there would be overloads from Bremen to Bratislava.

A ‘smart grid’ will almost duplicate the existing electricity grid with high-voltage cables running up and down the country, from wind farms around the coast. It will isolate the intermittent supplies of power from the reliable electricity supplied by coal, gas and nuclear power stations. When current is actually available from wind, it will be channelled by smart meters to freezers and refrigerators as an energy ‘sink’. The problems of using intermittent powers sources within a traditional electricity grid mean that there is a practical maximum of between six and eight per cent on power generated this way. The smart grid is a way of getting round this limitation (4).

A 2007 report for what was then called the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform estimated the total costs of smart-metering every household at over £27billion (5). A single meter may cost £240 more than a ‘dumb’ meter – but should save £11 a year on administration.

The roll-out of smart meters, far from being a cost-effective and sensible response to climate change and energy shortages, represents a grand experiment in electricity supply control and behaviour engineering, while undermining household autonomy. It’s time to pull the plug.

Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Elsewhere, they said what the world needs no is abundant, cheap, clean energy. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Smart meters, Builder, February 2009

(2) It’s So Much More Than a Smart Meter, Transmission & Distribution World, 1 April 2008

(3) The prospects for personal carbon trading, IPPR, 2009

(4) See Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston

(5) Appraisal of Costs & Benefits of Smart Meter Roll Out Options, Mott MacDonald for BERR, April 2007. Table 10-1

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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