IoB Insiders: Why are so-called ‘smart meters’ so very dumb?
IoB Insiders: The failure of the UK energy market and smart grids

IoB Insiders: Why are so-called ‘smart meters’ so very dumb?

IoB Insiders: Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom discusses why many smart meters, currently being rolled out across the UK, are not all they’re cracked up to be. 

If you live in the UK, you’ve probably had the communication from your energy supplier now, asking you to have your meter swapped out for a newer, smarter version.

Initially weighted up by the European Commission, responsibility for deciding whether smart meters were to be rolled out or not was subsequently passed to national governments. In the UK, way back in 2007, the government carried out a consultation exercise on the roll-out of smart meters, and in 2009, stated its intention to have them installed in every home by 2020.

Clive Longbottom, Quocirca

Much to-ing and fro-ing has taken place since, and there have been many detours and delays along the way, but it is still the intention to have smart meters in every property by 2020 – although the onus is on energy providers, not the government nor the consumer.

However, the biggest challenge has nothing to do with the law and whether meters are mandatory or not. No, it’s with the term ‘smart’, which stretches the usual definition of the word somewhat. TV and radio adverts claim that these devices enable consumers to ‘take back control’ of their energy usage – but do they?

How smart are smart meters?

Let’s assume that a household of four people takes four showers per day, creates two loads of laundry, uses the dishwasher twice, boils a kettle ten times and turns on the cooker four times.

Is that good or bad? The smart meter will allow that family to see how much energy it uses at an overall level, at any one time. The little gizmo that came with my own meter shows how much energy (both gas and electric) I am using, but it cannot split that down by device or appliance. I get a red light showing that I am using a high amount of energy – but is this out of the ordinary at a given point in the day, or is it just par for the course?

Sure, that same family could play ‘what if?’, testing out new energy-saving strategies to see what the impact is on daily energy usage. Family members can get guidance online about only boiling the amount of water in a kettle that is actually needed, or only turning on the dishwasher or washing machine when they are full, for example. But this is just common sense. And, if a family is not already taking these steps, is a single red warning light likely to make them change their ways?

To put it bluntly, the ‘smartness’ included in most smart meters today is already out-of-date. Yes, a smart meter will send usage details directly to your energy supplier. (However, if you change supplier, the meter fitted in your property may not work with the new supplier’s system – that’s where a lack of standardization gets you).

Yes, it will tell you approximately how much your energy usage is costing you, and it may allow you to see graphs of usage.

But few of the systems being installed now will integrate into the home PC and this, after all, would be where education could take place, in terms of getting family members to try out some of these ‘what ifs?’

Nor, in a world of exploding IoT technologies, do most smart meters allow for any integration into what could be a massive market for other smart devices in smart homes, tied in to the smart meters and into a smart grid.

Read more: Battery tech will power global smart grid ambitions

The failure of UK energy

The UK is already at breaking point with its energy grid. As more carbon-based generation is removed from the grid with not enough alternative power generation coming through to replace it, a cold winter could see rolling brown-outs occur. Such lowering of voltage on the grid is no major problem for most equipment – but if this isn’t enough, then certain industries will find themselves being cut off from the grid, followed by consumers.

Imagine instead a properly ‘smart’ system. Most freezers already monitor the temperature inside themselves. If the temperature rises above a certain point, an alarm goes off. If this monitoring and alarm were tied into the power provided to the freezer via the smart meter, then intelligent decisions could be made on when the freezer is provided with power. If the temperature within the freezer needs to be below -18°C and is actually at -22°C, cutting off the power for a few hours is not going to cause any harm to the food stored in it. As the temperature does warm up, say to -19°C, then the power can be restored.

Sure, one freezer does not take a lot of power – but multiply that by several million and it could be enough to avoid power blackouts.

Now tie the smart meter into home automation systems such as Nest, Hive, Alexa, whatever. As well as the consumer gaining full control over more of their home, central authorities can also either take unilateral decisions on how to conserve power (a bad step), or can allow consumers to gain some form of value through opting in to energy-saving processes.

For example, a family might agree not to run its heating systems above 15°C from April to September – and if it breaks that agreement, it accepts it will pay an extra amount for the energy used. It could opt for half of its lights to be turned off between 11pm and 7am, unless overridden by, for example, the activation of a fire alarm or a smoke or carbon monoxide detector, or the temperature rising by an unusual amount.

Achieving new energy efficiency would be so much easier if the smart meter was a peer member of the intelligent building community. Instead, it just sits there doing the bare minimum – sending readings back to the energy provider and sending signals to that dumb gizmo with the blue/green/red light on it.

Read more: Security flaw in IoT solar equipment could disrupt Europe’s electricity grid

An opportunity missed

This is a big opportunity missed, not only for a government that is still tied into climate change agreements, and so searching for anything that lowers energy usage, but also for energy suppliers, who are fast becoming bottom-feeders in a market of swap-costs energy.

If smart meters were truly smart, then energy suppliers could start to tie-in offers of devices and services that really make use of an intelligent, two-way information flow. Instead, for now, they are really pretty dumb.