Britain’s hi-tech clean energy future was going to be built around a smart grid of interconnected household and business smart meters. Connected up to smart equipment like domestic heaters and freezers, the smart grid would enable National Grid operators to balance supply and demand by remotely operating the equipment; for example, turning on washing machines when supply is high and turning off freezers when supply is low.
With this in mind, the UK government announced its target to fit every household in Britain with a smart meter by 2020.
One supposed benefit to consumers was the opportunity to see energy use in real time and to identify areas where they could save money. The other was that smart meters would confine meter reading and estimated bills to the history books by allowing suppliers to read meters remotely. The reality was somewhat different, as Sam Meadows in the Telegraph points out:
“When they were introduced in 2009, smart meters were supposed to simplify the billing process and ensure readings were up to date and accurate. But the roll-out has been plagued with problems…
“For many homeowners, who believed they would gain even more control over their bills, the introduction of a smart meter has been a disappointment.
“The majority of energy providers encourage customers to pay via annual payment plans, where their yearly usage is estimated in advance and the cost split into 12 payments. This means that millions of bills still refer to “estimated” use, even where customers have smart meters…
“Even where meters are working as planned, savings are small. Little data exists as yet but one provider, British Gas, has said that its customers using smart meters save on average £30 a year.”
Early adopters also discovered that proprietary first-generation smart meters made it much harder to switch energy provider. There are also connectivity issues in areas of the UK with poor mobile phone reception:
“Some of the “first generation” smart meters fitted in households are incompatible with a new national communications network – which is how your usage data is transmitted to the energy provider.
“Meters not connected to this system ‘go dumb’ when consumers switch suppliers, meaning their new smart meters are no better than the old-fashioned ones. Customers would have to submit readings manually as before – something which can actually be more difficult with a ‘smart-meter-turned-dumb’ than an old-fashioned meter.”
New second generation SMETII smart meters are now being used, and will replace the smart meters given to early adopters. However, the cost of this will, inevitably, be passed onto energy customers.
Less common, but more worrying concerns about smart meter accuracy and vulnerability to hacking have also served to deter households from using them. The result is that the government has been forced to abandon its 2020 target as consumers walk with their feet:
“The Government had originally said that every household would be set up with a smart meter by 2020 – and nearly seven million have been installed so far – but in June the Government subtly downgraded this requirement. Now every home will be ‘offered’ a smart meter by 2020, with no obligation to take one.”
Without smart meters there is little incentive for anyone to pay the much greater price for internet/smart meter-connected white goods. And without the widespread take-up of those technologies – which offer few consumer benefits beyond potentially saving money on electricity via a smart grid – the vision of a national Smart Grid that can manage much higher volumes of renewable and nuclear electricity is dead in the water. And government has nobody to blame but itself.
As is so often the case, politicians want the plaudits from grand projects – especially the ones that somebody else has to pay for. But the smart way to roll out what is still an experimental technology would have been to run a trial in a handful of neighbourhoods before even thinking about rolling it out more broadly. This would have allowed the energy companies to identify and correct the faults with the first generation smart meters, and avoid the negative publicity around them, without adding millions to the UK’s electricity bills. Done in this way, Britain may well have adopted smart meters by 2020. As it is, the Smart Grid has joined a long list of ill-conceived supposedly hi-tech Whitehall projects that have failed to live up to the lobbyists’ promises.