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The fourth industrial revolution in practice

Among the more comical ingredients of the various forms of proposed green new deals, the high-tech “fourth industrial revolution” ranks highly.  Central to this techno-utopian vision is the electrification of the economy and a switch from a manufacturing to a service economy.  And key to this is the comprehensive installation of a range of “smart” technologies, the most important of which is the smart energy meter; designed to allow for remote regulation of the supply and demand of intermittent renewable energy.

The electric cars that we will all – theoretically – be driving in the future will be linked into the smart meter network so that their batteries can provide energy storage.  Grid artificial intelligence systems will automatically charge car batteries when there is excess electricity and then remotely draw power from them when power shortages arise.

Beyond the physical objection to this vision – that there is simply insufficient cobalt to allow even a fraction of these electric cars to ever be built (and that batteries are already being squandered on entirely unnecessary gadgets) – one might expect that the smart meters themselves would be fit for purpose.  They are not.

In the UK, a sceptical public has already forced the government to backtrack on its climate change commitment to fit every home in the land with a smart meter by 2020 – the target is now only that every home in the land will have been offered a smart meter by the end of next year.  Once again, this is one of those issues where the public prove to be far more grounded in reality than our politicians.  Concern that smart meters can remotely disconnect customers; and concern that they will be used in future to drive up prices when wind and solar energy cannot meet demand has already caused millions of people to refuse to voluntarily install them.  However, these concerns pale into insignificance against the functional failure of the meters themselves.  As Colletta Smith at the BBC reported yesterday:

“Customers have been reporting issues with both the smart box, which normally sits with your fuse box, and the In Home Display which is the visible unit for your house.

“Government figures show that until the end of 2018, nearly 15 million smart meters had been installed. But those same figures also show that only 12.5 million were operational.  That leaves 2.3 million smart meters that have been installed but are not functioning…

“The £11bn smart-meter roll out is effectively being paid for by customers as energy companies are being charged by the government and they are passing that cost on through energy bills.

“Only 30% of the total target for smart meter roll out has been delivered, and the National Audit Office have said that the figure of £11bn which the government are working from underestimates the true cost of rolling out smart meters.”

Even by the government’s own estimates, those 2.3 million smart meters which have proved to be anything other than smart, have cost bill-payers some £560 million; at a time when energy poverty is rising; when new electricity supply companies are going broke in droves; and when the big energy suppliers are subsidising loss-making domestic supplies out of their commercial business profits.

I tend to avoid predictions because it is all too easy to mistake inevitability for imminence.  But when it comes to a fourth industrial revolution that requires technologies – like (supposedly) smart meters – that cannot be scaled up properly in the time required (and in the absence of some new and abundant more energy-dense than oil energy source) our fossil fuel dependent economy will have collapsed long before the promised hi-tech future puts in an appearance.

As you made it to the end…

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