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Smart meters - they're here!

Chameleon displayAward-winning UK-designed in-home display from Chameleon. Such devices connect wirelessly to smart meters and provide real-time information about gas and electricity usage in the home. Image courtesy of Chameleon Technology.

Ever been billed by your supplier for more energy than you actually used, or run out of credit on your pre-payment meter late at night? Well the installation ofsmart meters in all UK homes and businesses by 2020 should see an end to such problems. This new generation of intelligent devices monitor and record usage, help you keep track of how much energy you use, and inform your supplier via mobile phone-type signals.

Roll-out of smart meters will cost an estimated £11.7 billion, paid for by the energy companies (or rather their customers - i.e. us!), and started in autumn 2015. Up to end of 2016 nearly 5 million had been installed in domestic properties in Great Britain, including both gas and electric meters. The target is an estimated 50 million smart meters fitted by 2020!

The smart meter is similar in size to a current gas meter, and communicates wirelessly with a handheld in home display (IHD) unit. This can be used anywhere in the home to provide real-time data on amounts and costs of gas or electricity being used. The smart meter sends regular readings to the supplier via radio waves, similar to signals from a mobile phone. It can also receive information from your supplier, such as changes in tariffs or payment plans.

Benefits

Smart meters benefit consumers in various ways:

  • Real-time data can help in managing usage and changing habits, e.g. switching off appliances when not needed.

    'Meters' by Carol Ann Duffy

    This poem by Britain's Poet Laureate, inspired by the advent of smart meters, takes a lyrical view of our relationship to energy in our daily lives, and how this reflects changes in households over the years. It is accompanied by a short film directed by BAFTA-nominated Gary Tarn. Watch it on YouTube here.

    Carol Ann Duffy

  • Easily accessible historic data enable comparisons of energy usage, e.g., monthly or annually
  • More accurate bills and no more estimated billing
  • Potentially easier switching between different suppliers
  • Remote credit top-up or flexible payment plans for prepayment meters
  • Can use a local network to automatically switch devices on during off-peak tariff periods

Drawbacks

Points raised by critics of the scheme include:

  • Cost to consumers of the smart meter roll-out - although this should be more than offset by savings on energy bills (reckoned to be £23/year on average). Installers will be required to provide energy efficiency information as part of the process.
  • Data protection issues - 'Big Brother in your house'! The government has laid down various provisions to protect consumer privacy, so in theory your supplier will receive only sufficient data for billing purposes.
  • Health fears - some have raised concerns about the effects of the radiation emitted by smart meters, although Public Health England says that "evidence to date suggests...smart meters do not pose a risk to health".
  • Some first generation smart meters may stop being smart if you switch energy supplier, meaning you have to revert to manual readings. But these will be made compatible with the smart meter network in due course.

In any case, there will be no legal obligation to have one.

Cyber security and smart meters

Concerns have been raised about the vulnerability of a smart meter network to internet fraud and cyber crime. Because of this threat, experts from GCHQ were involved in designing the system, which they claim will deliver 'proportionate and practical security'. The National Cyber Security Centre has more information about the approach taken to minimize the risks for each component of the system.