Gov 'smart meter' plans: Sky box in charge of your house
The UK government has unveiled its plans for so-called "smart" energy meters, to be compulsory throughout Blighty in future. The proposed technology appears like excellent news for energy companies, offering them many options to cut costs and perhaps carbon emissions. Chances for consumers to be truly "smart", however, aren't part of the plans - ordinary users are set to remain locked out of the short-term energy market.
The government actually announced plans for universal smart metering last October, but this week has brought us the detail of what Whitehall has in mind. The next stage is a public consultation, in which everybody gets a chance to sound off and - just possibly - get the plans amended. It might be quite a good idea for consumers to do so; thus far it appears that the energy industry's ideas have been listened to. By contrast user groups seem to have focused mainly on the costs of introducing the new kit, rather than what it will actually do.
The actual specs on what the "smart meters" will be like is found at Section 3 of this pdf. The government would like, in outline, to see the following things:
1) Capability for remote meter readings, meaning that energy companies needn't sent out employees to take readings.
2) Two-way communications "between the meter and the energy supplier or other designated market organisation". This would allow "remote configuration and diagnostics, software and firmware changes" - in other words the thing will work like a Sky or TiVo set-top box, under the control of its master authority outside the home.
3) Home-network abilities, allowing an in-home meter display and possibly the ability to watch one's meter reading on other devices such as computers, TVs etc.
4) The ability for energy firms to cut off supplies remotely. Gas meters would probably include a remotely-operable shutoff valve for this purpose.
5) Ability to measure "exported" electricity, as when a house sells 'leccy back to the grid - perhaps from a plugged-in electric car or other storage system. Similarly the meter must be able to work with microgeneration equipment so as to let people sell electricity to the grid.
6) The "ability to remotely [ie from outside the premises] control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home". The grid authorities already have some ability to "manage demand" - ie ration energy supplies - but they plainly want more tools to this end.
The government sees the meters being under the authority of a central body along the lines of the national grid, rather than by the power companies themselves. However, the central authority would hand off control of various functions to the suppliers, or implement them at the suppliers' request.
So far, it's very much a wish list for the energy companies. They get to lay off all their meter-reading employees, and very probably move to universal, fully automated, paperless billing. Administration attendant on losing or gaining customers, disputes over meter readings, or cutting off those who don't pay becomes hugely simpler for them. This removes a major part of their in-house costs - actual energy generation is usually handled by different companies, or different parts of the same group.
So what's in it for the consumer?
What do we get? So far, mainly the chance to pay for it
Well, says the gov, "the home-area network will provide real-time information to a display to empower them to regulate and reduce their energy use". However, one can already buy wireless meter kit which will do this kind of thing - noticeably more cheaply than an adequately hack-proof smart meter will be - so that's not much of an incentive.
But wait, there's more. "Multiple tariff registers and remote switching capability will enable suppliers to offer, and consumers to choose from a greater range of tariffs and tariff packages and payment methods and for their supplier to enable the changes remotely."
Specifically the smart meters will offer "support for a range of time of use tariffs", which will be set by the energy supplier. In other words the supplier will be able to charge more for energy used at peak times, when it costs them more to buy on the spot market - and/or offer reductions for use during times of low demand when spot prices are low.
The government are hoping that this will happen, and that consumers will think to themselves "Hmm, I'm on 20p a unit 'til 8. Let's have supper late and watch EastEnders on iPlayer after, when it's cheap. And I'll program the dishwasher to cut in at 2am, when it's even cheaper."
All this might help to iron out the troublesome early-evening demand spike, when all of Blighty gets home from work, puts the kettle and telly on, starts having meals and all the rest of it. Thus there might be less need for standby generators to cover the evening surge, which would be nice as these fast-reacting gas turbine plants are particularly inefficient and dirty - you don't thrash efficient combined-cycle turbines up and down in power output like that, and they can't pay for themselves running for just a few hours a day anyway.
The end result would be, probably, a few per cent saving on the consumer's bill and a bigger one in national carbon emissions as the part-time powerplants are disproportionately large emitters for the amount of energy they produce.
But frankly, a lot of opportunities are being missed here. Many consumers, for instance, might say that a "smart" meter would be one which was able to switch between suppliers by simply pressing a button - or perhaps under the control of a simple home computer program.
If a company wanted to keep its customers for more than an hour or two in that scenario, it would have to seriously cut into the thumping profit margins currently enjoyed by the major consumer energy providers. (The spot market price of electricity spends most of the day well under 5p per unit, but consumers pay well north of 10p for much of their juice, and more than 8p for the rest. With the expenses of billing, meter reading etc removed, this sort of energy market would be a licence for suppliers to print money. This may offer a clue as to their enthusiasm for the plans.)
The government merely says that "The switching process should be quicker and smoother so that consumers can change supplier more easily", but it seems unlikely that this will really speed things up. Many of us might prefer it if there was a phrase in there such as "meters will support consumers' ability to switch suppliers within one hour/one minute of bill payment being authorised".
It might also be nice if, as a consumer, one could go into the marketplace and say "I'd like to buy my next ten/hundred units now, what prices are on offer for that" or "I'd like to have my next bunch of units at spot-plus-lowest-offered-margin" or whatever. That last would be particularly favourable if lots of wind or solar power ever gets hooked up to the grid - you could time your power use to windy or sunny periods, perhaps with the aid of your trusty electric car as a power reservoir, and so get a cheaper deal while reducing national carbon emissions.
That kind of thing would be what we consumers might call a smart meter. At the moment, though, the planned "smart meter" is actually more like a remotely-controlled set top box via which the national grid and the power companies can monitor - even take control of - your home. As consumers are going to have to bear much of the cost of it, we might rather request that it be a tool for letting us get some genuine access to the energy market.
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