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…

Smart meters update – eat more salads…

The UK Q3 2020 Smart Meter Statistics Report is sobering reading. The data therein implies that the programme to rollout domestic ‘smart’ gas and electricity meters will be even later and more expensive!   Reading the report reminded the Badger that he had mentioned a couple of months ago his intention to install ‘smart’ meters as part of updating his home’s infrastructure.  Well, the meters have been in and operational for about 8 weeks now so it’s time to share some of the experience.   

Because the Badger sources gas and electricity from different suppliers, separate installation bookings were needed. These  were arranged on-line with just a few days between them, and emails arrived confirming the bookings and advising  that the installations could take up to two hours. The installers turned up on schedule.  The gas meter installation happened first. Energy supply was off for 10 minutes to physically fit the hardware and then the installer spent 50 minutes in their van ‘connecting to the centre’ to get the meter and In-Home Display working.  The electric meter installation was similar, but this time the supply was off for just 5 minutes. The installer then spent 2 hours in their van getting the meter and In-Home Display working! Both installers were great but obviously frustrated by how long it ‘connecting to the centre’, as they described it. 

So, how’s it been since? Well, the novelty of watching dials on In-Home Displays move when household devices turn on and off quickly wore off.  Watching the dials for a few days only confirmed what the Badger already knew, namely that boiling the kettle,  using the washing machine, cooking, and household hot water/heating consume the most energy by far. Lighting, media devices like the television and radio, and your home computing devices use much, much less.  Seeing what your energy is costing on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, however, is much more useful and a good reminder that loyalty to any energy supplier is never rewarded! In the last week, the In-Home Display began displaying ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ intermittently!  Powering it off and on fixes the problem.

So, from the Badger’s perspective, installing smart meters has been a largely benign experience. Does that mean he’s a convert? No. Why not? Well, the Badger’s wife put it rather neatly yesterday. She observed that our smart meters have really only shown that to use less energy, save money, and help the green agenda, we must drink less tea and coffee, eat more salads than hot meals, wear more clothes to keep warm, wash them less frequently, and take fewer hot baths and showers!  It was her way of pointing out that it’s disciplined human behaviour that brings about beneficial change, not expensive technology whose benefits are over-sold and under-delivered. She has a point.

Time to have a new meter…

The Badger read the article “The Critics Of ‘Smart Meters’ Were Right All Along” and chuckled.  It says that a supplier of electricity to UK homes has proposed a system whereby suppliers can use installed Smart Meters to turn off the electricity to your home, or to certain devices within it, when demand exceeds supply from the grid. It’s a wonderful illustration of how big corporations think about maximising their opportunities from today’s ‘always on’ digital technology, and of how journalists write attention-grabbing stories with an underlying premise that’s dubious!

The Badger’s continued to chuckle as a result of two other things.  Firstly, the short reaction  in TechMarketView’s  ‘Shock horror risk of cold showers with smart meters’, and its comment that ‘…it is unlikely that the national smart meter rollout will be complete in our lifetimes – if ever’.  And secondly, because the Badger is in the throes of modernising his home’s infrastructure and is installing SMETS2 ‘Smart’ Meters for gas and electricity.  The decision to embrace Smart Meters has nothing to do with a green future, cutting household energy bills, it being ‘smart’, or capitulation to incessant flimflam and communications from the government and energy companies. It’s simply that the time’s right for the Badger to do it, the meters are just modern meters at the end of day, they meet the Badger’s needs, and it feels like the right time to get something tangible for the money we have all paid for them through our energy bills over the last 8 years!

A meter is being installed next month. The Badger is taking close interest in the whole process, ostensibly because it feels like it will prove a fertile ground for the content of this blog in the future! Will things go smoothly? Will having a Smart Meter actually change anything in the Badger household? Will it prove trouble-free? Will it encourage a reduction in the use (and cost) of energy? Time will tell.  Will it be a trojan horse that eventually allows an energy provider to directly control supply to particular devices in the home or to purposefully interfere in some other way? No. Why? Because there isn’t an elected politician that wants to stay elected who will align with such a notion in the face of a public outcry about freedom.  In this country people strongly believe that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, i.e. they have the right to do what they want in their own home without interference from others. Woe betide anyone or any organisation that seeks to encroach on that right.

As noted above, however, time will tell if the Badger’s right.  But given the embarrassing UK Smart Meter programme has until 2025 to complete ‘offering’ smart meters to households, the Badger thinks it’s pretty certain that the meters will go ’end of life’ before your energy provider can independently turn your oven off to manage supply and demand.   

The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

Smart Meters; Hardly a success…

If you’ve worked extensively on major technology-intensive programmes then you’ll know to expect bumps in the road as new hardware, software, communication networks and processes are introduced to users in the real world. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the UK Smart Meter programme is in the press again!

The target for every UK home to have been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 isn’t going to be met. Rollout is stalling. Just look at the Q1 2019 rollout numbers! It isn’t credible that the target can be met, but the relevant government department ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt when even the CEO of Citizens Advice – a charity helping citizens resolve life difficulties with free, independent, confidential advice – thinks the target is unfeasible and must be delayed to ~2023!

Delay means more cost, and the published estimates of consumer bills reducing by £300m/year in 2020 and £1.2bn/year by 2030 will inevitably be revised down. Who pays? The consumer. Although many technology professionals have worked very hard on this programme to get the new software, hardware and communication networks in place, the overall programme has the whiff of white elephant territory and it’s a struggle to see it as a good advert for major ‘Smart’ government initiatives.

Who’s at fault? No doubt many entities will point fingers at each other, but – as the November 2018 National Audit Office’s report noted – the buck stops with the government department that currently still ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. The Badger has a simple view. The numbers don’t fib. The costs are ever rising. The business case must be stressed. Fault is rarely with a single entity; it rests collectively. What’s needed now is less rhetoric, spin and defensiveness, and more honesty, realism and greater respect for the end consumer in the roll out.

The 2018 Smart Meter Progress Report ends with the statement ‘the Government has committed to update the cost-benefit analysis for the Programme and complete a stock take of consumer benefits in 2019’. The outcome from this – if it happens – may be the uncomfortable reading that produces a trigger ‘event’ for ‘revision’ of the programme. Time will tell. Meanwhile the Badger not only saves money and the climate without a smart meter, but also avoids the higher tariffs levied by suppliers when consumers exercise their right not to have a smart meter. These may be digital times but one thing’s clear. £11bn and counting, stalling rollout to ambivalent consumers, delay, questionable cost/benefit and the whiff of white elephant are hardly success indicators…