Communications networks; one day the unthinkable will happen…

Almost two years ago the Badger wrote an item entitled ‘Connection lost, please move your unit closer to the meter, text which appeared on his home energy monitor when wireless connectivity to his domestic smart meter was lost. Today, the energy monitor and smart meter are in the same locations, the energy suppliers are the same, but energy has become a precious and expensive commodity due to world events. The Badger, like many, has been using his monitor in recent months to influence his energy usage, and he’s noticed that the ‘connection lost’ message has been slowly rising in frequency.    

Is the monitor faulty? Investigation suggests not. After eliminating possible sources of wireless interference, the Badger thinks the message might be triggered as a consequence of remote update activity associated with the smart meter and its communication network. It’s no big deal in the scheme of things, because powering the monitor off and on after the message appears usually re-establishes normal function. The message, however, has prompted the Badger to wonder more expansively about the wisdom of life that has digital communication networks at the heart of everything we do.  These days we seem to take things labelled ‘smart, ‘online’, ‘live’, ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, ‘cashless’, and ‘AI’ for granted and forget that they are all critically dependent on unseen communication networks.  What if catastrophe befell these networks? It’ll never happen, you might say, but have you given any thought to the impact on yourself or your family if it did? Probably not.

Our dependence on such networks is ever rising. Today, for example, the Badger cannot just turn up at his local community swimming pool, pay cash, have a swim, and pay cash for a post-swim coffee. A visit must be booked and paid for online in advance, and all refreshment and retail services at the pool are cashless. The Badger and the pool operator are thus already completely reliant on the unseen communication networks that are the ‘critical infrastructure’ of modern life. Most people assume that a truly catastrophic failure of this infrastructure is unthinkable because governments and enterprises know their importance and have policies, processes, and plans in place to mitigate the risks.  However, this assumption may be erroneous because, as events in recent years show, the unthinkable happens and plans may never be quite what they seem.

So, if you have a few minutes spare then give some thought to what you would do if a catastrophic network failure rendered everything ‘smart’, ‘online’, ‘live’,  ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, or ‘cashless’ unusable for weeks or more.  The Badger’s no doomster, but a life totally reliant on digitally connected services feels akin to placing all your eggs in one basket. That’s never a good idea because, as sure as eggs are eggs, one day the unthinkable will happen and we will all have to cope.    


Obsolescence; from ink cartridges to Smart Meters

Bah, humbug! Having to buy new ink cartridges for the Badger’s printer always rankles. New ones are expensive, cheaper repurposed ones often prove to be of variable quality and using ink refilling kits has rarely been successful. It rankles that a set of black and colour cartridges now cost 60% of the price for the printer in the first place! Ink cartridge pricing is, of course, part of how printer companies maximise their revenues from selling their printers, but that’s no comfort for the consumer who feels fleeced when the ink runs out.  

This grumpiness was caused by printing an article on obsolescence in the tech industry for a friend. The ink ran out halfway through with no replacement cartridges to hand. Given the advances in technology since ink cartridges became commonplace in the 1980s, surely, the Badger mused, ink cartridges should now be obsolete? Surely printers can be designed and built with ink reservoirs that users can fill cleanly from ink bottles? Surely that would be a cheaper, user-friendly, and environment-friendly approach? The printer companies, of course, prefer to preserve the current ‘obsolete’ status quo because it provides a predictable and profitable long term revenue stream.

Anyway, this little incident made the Badger read the part-printed document which highlighted that obsolescence, planned or otherwise, pervades our daily lives. The tech advances of the last forty years have shortened the lifespan of the gadgets, equipment,  and systems we use daily with many companies making huge amounts of money from this fact. Just look at the evolution of the smartphone over the last fifteen or so years. Whenever you bought one, a better one came along within months of your purchase, and the solution to accidental damage or dodgy battery life was a new, better, device rather than repair. Obsolescence was essentially built in.

Technology continues to advance rapidly and so there’s an inevitability that major programmes with tech at their heart will be obsolescent by the time they deliver. The UK’s slothful Smart Meter rollout programme neatly illustrates the point.  As the Data Communications Company (DCC),  the organisation responsible for ensuring the smart metering infrastructure remains fit-for-purpose, highlights in its plan, assimilating earlier and the latest meters into an infrastructure based on 2G/3G communication is an ongoing challenge when the comms network needs to be upgraded. The programme, initiated over a decade ago, has yet to deliver as originally conceived.

The Badger mentioned these points to his wife as he went out to buy some printer cartridges. She just grinned and said that everything in the world was obsolete; the car, the high street, cash, housing, the railways…and perhaps also her husband!  Apparently, the Badger is turning into a Victor Meldrew for 2023…

The UK energy crisis has done more to change consumer energy behaviour than Smart Meters…

If you cut through the flim-flam about how to change the way people behave, then there’s an immutable truth, namely that the quickest way to change behaviour is to change the amount of money people have in their pocket!  It’s a hard-nosed reality that lifestyle for most people is determined by whether their money covers the overheads of living, or not. Governments, businesses, and even project managers all use the lever of money in our pockets to pursue their overall political, business, or delivery objectives. They use, for example, tax changes, bonuses, and overtime payments to powerfully incentivise the behavioural changes they need to meet their objectives in an expected timescale.

The UK energy crisis neatly illustrates how our behaviour changes when our pockets take a financial hit. The huge rise in consumer electricity and gas prices has already cut consumption by much more than 10%.  If the Badger household is typical, then this cut in consumption may be much greater than reported. It seems that our behaviour of energy wastefulness is being replaced by a welcome return to a more disciplined ethos, and that’s a good thing! Clearly the dramatic rise in electricity and gas prices has hit everyone in the pocket and quickly changed our energy behaviour for the better. In fact, being a little mischievous, the rises have done more to permanently change consumer energy behaviour in a year, than the UK’s Smart Meter programme and its Einstein advertisements have achieved in a decade.

Which takes us to the UK Smart Meter statistics update published a few days ago on 24th November 2022. It shows that there are still less than 50% of domestic homes with a Smart Meter installed and operating in smart mode. The installation rate remains, at best, broadly flat. On the current trajectory, the rollout’s revised 2024/2025 deadlines will be missed yet again. The adoption of Smart Meters, which primarily benefit energy providers, thus still has a long way to go before it materially embeds any significant change to consumer behaviour. It’s easy, therefore, to conclude that the energy crisis hit to consumer pockets has changed behaviour more and faster, and for the long term, than the rollout of Smart Meters. It’s also a solid reminder that the quickest way to change the behaviour of an individual, a team, a workforce, a community, or a population, is to do something that puts money into, or takes money out of, their pockets.

Finally, the energy crisis has exposed many flaws in UK energy policy and UK energy markets that go back at least two decades. The installed level of Smart Meters coupled with the paucity of their impact in materially changing consumer energy behaviour, simply adds weight to the feeling that this programme is another one of these flaws.

UK Smart Meter rollout; updated official statistics due shortly…

The next official update of UK Smart Meter rollout statistics is due on the 25th August. The last update, here, covering the first quarter of 2022, showed that 41% and 48% of domestic gas and electricity meters, respectively, are now Smart Meters operating in smart mode. This means that, overall, 45% of all domestic meters are Smart Meters functioning as intended, an increase of 2.8 percentage points in the first quarter of 2022. It’ll be interesting to see how things have changed in the forthcoming update.

Since the National Audit Office’s spotlight on the rollout  in 2018, new obligations on energy suppliers, and a new target for completing the entire rollout by mid-2025, were introduced in July 2021 . The devil’s always in the detail with official statistics, so there’ll probably be scope in the forthcoming figures for politicians and energy suppliers to assert that things are on track to hit the new mid-2025 target. The Badger’s nose, however, is twitching, which is normally an early warning signal to expect more delay and cost. Why the twitch? Well, extrapolating into the future may be a dangerous game, especially in volatile energy supply, political, and economic times, but if the rollout continues to put just 2.8 percentage points on the overall number every quarter, then ~20% of the target will still be outstanding in mid-2025. If the forthcoming statistics are better than expected, then the Badger might need to recalibrate his nose as an early warning sensor!

Regardless of the marketing campaigns, Smart Meters provide little real benefit to the consumer who continues to pay for their rollout in their bills. They primarily benefit energy suppliers and the government, through various overhead and wholesale energy trading cost reductions and spin regarding commitments to 2050 net zero emissions. UK Subnational Electricity and Gas consumption statistics show that in 2020 domestic electricity consumption had reduced by 18.6% compared to its level in 2005. Similarly, domestic gas consumption had reduced by 28% over the same period. It’s notable that the national Smart Meter rollout began in earnest in 2016 and so hasn’t played any significant role in these reductions. The devil’s again in the detail, but you really have to be rather blinkered to believe otherwise.

The Badger feels that mainstream media’s focus on energy prices and their impact on the cost of living in recent months – a focus driven by post-pandemic, geo-political, and bust supplier issues – has changed the use of energy by consumers faster and more permanently than Smart Meters have or will do in the future. Well done the media, for a change! So, if the Badger’s twitchy nose still has some credibility, what’s next for the Smart Meter programme if the forthcoming rollout statistics are poor? Perhaps this expensive programme will achieve formal white elephant status and consumers will get a rebate? Dream on…

Smart Meters; a continuing tale of woe…

The cost of electricity and gas is a hot topic and, unsurprisingly, it came up in recent conversations with a busy millennial with a well-paid job, a 82-year-old widow living in social housing, and a 96-year-old widower still living independently in his own property. Apart from energy prices, a common theme ran through all these conversations, namely a bad experience with their energy provider and smart meters.

The millennial is rarely at home and uses a small amount of energy. Their smart meter stopped functioning a year ago when their supplier moved their account to a new IT system and messed up the transfer. The disgruntled millennial has thus reverted to entering manual meter readings online as regular contact with their provider to resolve the meter problem has proved fruitless. Last week the provider emailed an energy forecast which is 3x the current level and recommended tripling the millennial’s monthly direct debit immediately. With a very healthy credit balance, and checking their historic usage, the believe the provider’s forecast is wide of the mark. Accordingly, they’ve refused to accept the recommended direct debit increase and are once again trying to get the provider to return their smart meter to normal function.

The two pensioners were apparently persuaded by their energy provider to ‘trial’ a smart meter many years ago. About three years ago, however, their meters stopped working and estimated bills have been issued and paid ever since. For a couple of years both pensioners have regularly received letters from their provider threatening legal action because they haven’t submitted a real meter reading. Both regularly telephone their supplier to explain that they cannot submit readings because the LCD displays on their meters no longer work! After every call, the provider has sent someone to read the meter, only for that person to find they cannot take a reading because the LCD isn’t working! The meter readers say an engineer is needed, and when the pensioners have diligently reported this back to their providers, another meter reader turns up to read the meter! The two elders now hate their supplier, hate smart meters, and feel trapped in a Groundhog Day! The 96-year-old has, however, now sought assistance from Citizen’s Advice.

Long before current energy price issues, these individuals have developed a deep distrust of energy providers and smart meters, compounded by media reports like this, this, and this.  They think smart meters are over-hyped, irrelevant to consumers, and already obsolete. The 96-year-old wryly tells anyone who will listen when they hear smart meters mentioned that they are a ‘tale of woe’! A look at  the most recent UK smart meter rollout metrics, suggests they are hardly a success after 11 years and billions in expenditure. The Badger senses that more rollout delay and cost to the consumer on the horizon, and if that’s the case then the 96-year-old has called it right – the whole thing really is ‘a tale of woe’.

Spike Milligan, Nuclear Fusion and Smart Meters…

Two recent announcements, seemingly unrelated, reminded the Badger of Spike Milligan’s quip ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected’.

The first was that UK Smart Meters will, by default rather than consumer opt-in, automatically send usage data to suppliers every 30 minutes by 2025  so that ‘time of use’ tariffs charging more at peak times can be offered to all consumers. According to OFGEM, the Regulator, ‘It will enable a more efficient, flexible and greener energy system which will save billions of pounds per year on all consumers’ energy bills’. Hmm, that seems doubtful. Smart Meters have hardly been a success for consumers who haven’t seen any savings in their bills to date from their introduction over the last decade. Will people really change their habits and routines after 2025 for consumer bills to go down? It’s doubtful. Apparently, the fire brigade was not consulted about this announcement, and so we can expect a public outcry when there’s a fire tragedy caused by household appliances running late at night or in the early morning.   

The second announcement was the achievement of a fusion record at JET. There’s a long way to go before commercial fusion power becomes a reality, but this record shows that scientists and engineers are rapidly building the knowledge and technology needed to deliver the  low-carbon, sustainable, baseload energy that future generations need. The Badger doesn’t know if the Electricity Board had a say in when the JET experiment was  conducted, but ‘Let there be light (and heat)’ was certainly achieved!

Which brings us back to Spike Milligan, a man with severe bipolar disorder and famous for surreal humour who died 20 years ago. He was an enthusiastic environmental campaigner and the issues of life on our planet would be a rich source for his dark, surreal, humour if he were alive today. It’s entirely possible that Spike might draw on the electricity, greener energy system, and consumer points that emerge from the announcements above to make quips like ‘The Smart thing with a Smart Meter is not to have one’, ‘I want my energy a different colour to go with the décor’, ‘My Bill needs to go on a diet’. Spike would, however, produce better quips than the Badger’s!

Of the announcements above, it’s the fusion record that should give most cause for optimism about our energy future. While commercial fusion power may still be ’30 years away’, the JET record highlights not only the importance of career scientists and engineers working together to build knowledge, understanding, and to solve world problems, but also that seemingly intractable problems can be overcome to provide energy benefit to us all. The Badger’s always been pro-fusion because, as Spike Milligan observed, One day the “Don’t Knows” will get in and then where will we be?

Smart meters – Time for a refund

Over the Christmas holidays the Badger and visiting family and friends reflected on 2022’s challenges. This has become something of an annual family ritual over the years because it normally proves cathartic, entertaining, and insightful. This year’s conversation proved particularly entertaining. To the Badger’s surprise, one cross-generational consensus emerged, namely that consumers have been over-sold the benefits of Smart Meters and are not getting value for money from the UK rollout programme or their energy suppliers. Everyone agreed, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that one of the 2022 challenges was to get consumers a refund for the money they’ve paid via their bills for the Smart Meter programme.

Perhaps the Badger shouldn’t have been surprised given an update from the youngster whose experience was described two  months ago in the item Not another smart meter moan. In early November they emailed their supplier, EON, pointing out that the root cause of the metering problem lay with EON’s own systems. EON didn’t respond, and so in the week before Christmas the youngster phoned EON’s call centre whose only remedy was either to provide estimated bills going forwards or to arrange for an engineer to replace the Smart Meter which is actually working perfectly.  It emerged on the call that the meter problem started when EON unilaterally transferred the youngster’s account to EON Next, screwing up the data transfer in the process.  The call centre seemed at a loss on how to correct this, and so the youngster, who blames both the UK Smart Meter programme and EON, will leave EON at the end of their contract.   

Another friend, a long-standing SSE customer, also expressed annoyance with the recent transfer of their Smart Meter and SSE online account to OVO, who bought SSE’s retail energy arm in 2020. Their SSE online account provided useful year on year energy use comparison, but energy data prior to mid-November 2021 when it was transferred to OVO no longer appears in their online OVO account making year on year use comparison impossible. Being energy conscious and having lived in the same property for ten years, the Badger’s friend is frustrated and blames the UK rollout programme and OVO for not being consumer focused.      

It was numerous different experiences like these that seeded general agreement that getting consumers a refund for money spent on the UK Smart Meter was a 2022 challenge! After our discussion, we settled down to watch Netflix’s ‘Don’t look up’ which is a satirical take on our highly polarised, distorted, tech-dominated world. It made us all realise that there’s a next to zero chance of meeting this 2022 challenge,  and so we put another log in the wood-burner and thumbed our noses at all politicians and the energy industry. It felt like an apt gesture because we all expect to do more of the same as 2022 progresses…

Not another Smart Meter moan…

Oh no, not another moan about Smart Meters! That was a friend’s disdainful response when told that this item relates to Smart Meters. The Badger chuckled at the reaction because his friend is, shall we say, a strident believer that the average householder will never tangibly benefit from the UK’s Smart Meter rollout programme. In today’s item, however, the Badger highlights something different, namely someone’s specific experience with an energy supplier’s handling of their Smart  Meter readings. Why focus on this? Because their experience illustrates that when a supplier’s own systems go awry when they shouldn’t, it’s always the blameless consumer who’s inconvenienced.

Two years ago, a hardworking millennial living on their own had Smart Meters installed in their home. Being very tech-savvy with a time-poor lifestyle, they’d decided it was a sensible thing to do and would reduce the administrative overhead of routine life. The installation went smoothly, and they’ve worked without any problems with the same energy supplier ever since. Arriving home after a long and tiring day at work a few weeks ago, however, there was a card on the door mat indicating that someone from the energy supplier had visited to read the meters but had been unable to gain access to do so. The youngster quickly checked their Smart Meters and their monthly energy payments and found they were fine and fully up to date, respectively. The card on the doormat was thus ignored and immediately consigned to the recycling bin.

 A week later the youngster wondered if they were caught in Groundhog Day because the same thing happened again. This time the card asked them to contact the energy supplier to make an appointment because the meters needed to be read to avoid an estimated bill. Disgruntled, the weary youngster decided they had more pressing  priorities than putting themselves out, especially as one of the selling points of Smart Meters was  ‘no more manual meter readings’, and the meters had been functioning smoothly with the same supplier for two years.  The card was crumpled up and again consigned to the recycling.

Last weekend, the intrigued youngster logged into their online account with the supplier and found, after some ferreting around, that recent meter readings had been erroneously recorded against the old manual meters which were replaced two years ago. Something had clearly gone wrong with the energy suppliers systems and the youngster decided that life’s too short to concern themselves with problems of their supplier’s own making, especially as with modern technology it’s something the supplier should be able to detect and resolve themselves. The youngster logged out and got on with their weekend.

What happened next? Nothing, as yet. But woe betide if a meter reader happens to turn up on the doorstep when the youngster’s actually at home. It’ll be a short conversation.

Reflecting on a smart meter…

It’s ten years since the UK’s smart meter roll-out programme began, and it’s nine months since a smart meter was fitted in the Badger’s home. It seemed apt this week, therefore, to spend a little time considering whether the smart meter has helped reduce the household’s energy consumption. Accordingly, the Badger sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee to analyse how the household’s annual kilowatt hours have changed over the last seven years when the number of house occupants has been a constant. The analysis revealed that annual kilowatt hours dropped every year up until the smart meter was installed nine months ago. Energy consumption has dropped by 36% from the level seven years ago. Consumption since the smart meter was installed, however, is on track to be essentially on a par with the last pre-smart meter year. 

This means that the sizeable reduction in household consumption was achieved during the era of an old-fashioned, reliable, mechanical meter and not by installing a smart meter. It shows that personal discipline and behavioural change in using energy in the home has a bigger impact than having a smart meter per se.  Having a smart meter for nine months has, however, largely been a benign experience.  The In-Home Display still intermittently displays ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ which is irritating when the smart meter campaign’s website says it’ll work anywhere in your home.  The novelty of monitoring the In-Home display also wore off long ago, and now any hype about smart meters is now, frankly, just ignored. The household may have a ‘modern’ smart meter as part of its updated infrastructure, but as a consumer it doesn’t feel particularly beneficial or worthwhile.     

It seems that the jury’s out on whether households think the smart meter roll out programme has been worthwhile. The Badger, as a consumer paying for this programme through their energy bills, is dubious that it’s worth the billions that have been spent. The programme’s been running for a decade so far. It’s much delayed, and the current target set for 2024 looks both optimistic and somewhat irrelevant given the meters must all apparently be replaced if home gas boilers are to be adapted or replaced to use hydrogen.  One can’t help but feel that this programme has been over-sold and is turning out to be an expensive dud, at least for consumers.   

The simple fact is that a smart meter hasn’t helped to reduce energy use in the Badger’s household over the last nine months. It’s become like its old-fashioned predecessor, a box in a corner that just does its thing.  You don’t need a smart meter to save energy and hence money, you just need to change your household disciplines and personal behaviour…which, of course, costs you nothing.  

Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter…

Domestic Smart Meters installed as part of the UK rollout programme come with a small monitor providing the consumer with information about their energy usage. This little device connects to the meter via a wireless network. It’s normally positioned in a place that is both convenient for the consumer and where there is a strong wireless signal with the meter. In the Badger’s home, the monitor has never been moved from where it was put last autumn when the smart meter was installed. It functions there happily for the vast majority of the time.

Occasionally at the weekend, however, it stops working and displays the message ‘Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter’. This isn’t a big deal because powering the device off and then on re-establishes the connection and normal service. The message appeared again last weekend, but this time it took a number of off-on cycles for service to resume.  This, and seeing the Smart Energy programme’s Albert Einstein advert extolling the virtues of digitising the UK energy system, made the Badger cogitate on a couple of questions.   

Firstly, has a Smart Meter made much of a difference in the Badger household? Not really, ostensibly because we have always been disciplined and never profligate in our use of energy. While the little energy monitor provides useful information, it did not take long after it was installed to realise that it just confirmed what we already knew, namely that cooking, cleaning, and heating dominates consumption and thus the bill. Using a PC or watching TV have a much smaller impact in comparison. The novelty of regularly looking at the energy monitor thus quickly wore off. Indeed, the Badger knows many people who have eventually turned their monitor off completely and banished it to a cupboard with other unused devices!  

Secondly, is the ‘Connection lost…’ message a reminder of something important that we all take for granted? Yes, it is. It’s a reminder that wireless and wired networks are the plumbing on which the modern world relies. Today a device is, at best, limited in its use without some kind of network connection, and, at worst, it’s useless!  Networks are a rather hidden part of the tech landscape in the general public’s psyche, but given how life would be impacted if they were down for weeks, months, or even years, they deserve more public awareness of how life would change in their absence.   

Networks are critical infrastructure and not immune to a diverse range of threats. It is foolhardy to think that this infrastructure could suffer some kind of seriously disruptive event in the future. Whenever that happens, let’s just hope that it brings out the best in humanity, rather than the worst.  Gosh! Isn’t it surprising where a simple monitor losing connection with its Smart Meter can take your thoughts…