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Are smart meters really clever?

Now you would have thought that as a member of the A Greener Festival team I would be very keen on smart meters that accurately measure energy use wouldn’t you? Well I’m not and let me try and explain why. Last week four of us from the AGF team went down to the British Library for a fascinating talk from their ‘Myths and Realities’ season on whether or not sustainable lifestyles really were possible (Great Theory: Impossible Practice). One thing that came out of the fascinating talks from Ian Christie (University of Surrey) and Professor Dale Southerton (University of Manchester) was that despite pressure on the world’s resources that mean we are increasingly encouraged to consume less power, water, even food – few of us make more than minimal efforts to change our behaviour. We have more efficient lighting in our homes – but we have more lighting and so our energy use inexorably increases. We know we are using too much water so we use showers – but we spend more time in them, we have power showers and we wash our bodies more and more.  We have more efficient boilers – but our homes get warmer and warmer. And we are obsessed with fridges and freezer – which take up 25% of household energy use now. The freezer used to be a small box designed to cope with seasonal gluts in cheap or home grown produce – now these enormous white goods drive our lifestyles and eating habits. Mad!

Now smart meters (intelligent metering systems) would allow consumers to monitor and hopefully reduce energy and water use. Wouldn’t they? Well apart from some evidence that they don’t actually get used like that, my main worry is twofold – the cost and use of information. Let’s look at the cost. The current estimate of installing smart meters in place of the 53 million existing gas and electricity meters in the UK (by the Public Accounts Committee) is £11.7 billion. This means that household bills will need to be increased by something like £350 to cover the cost – but estimated savings are something like £23 per annum. Hmmmmm! And homes that are already energy efficient save even less. And we all know what happens with estimated costs. They never go down, they always go up – especially when someone else is paying or the state is regulating. It looks like one big gravy train. One enormous £11.7 billion publicly funded gravy train and (as ever) any attempts at state regulation will fail – as they always do, despite no doubt the best efforts of the Department for Energy & Climate Change.

With smart meters, details of energy use are pulsed to your utility company via Wi-fi every half hour and stored digitally. But will the date be stored safely? Well whatever the government may promise it is particularly BAD at keeping data safe: ministers throw documents in bins in parks; HM Revenue & Customs lost 25 million child benefit records in 2007; the Driving Standards Agency lost 3 million records of driving test applicants (also in 2007); PA Consulting lost the details of all prisoners in the UK 2008 and the Ministry of Justice lost details of 5000 prison officers. I am afraid that the information will just not be kept safely – and indeed despite assurances to the contrary, might be just too tempting to the utility companies to use it themselves – even if they can keep it safe. Who is going to guarantee that no-one knows if I go away on holiday for a month or even out for the day?  How is my privacy and my home security going to be protected? Who will be protecting systems against hackers who could target the data? What will stop the utility companies using data for marketing or other purposes? Who will deal with complaints?

Poorly designed scheme in the Netherlands, Australia and California have prompted ‘mass consumer rejection’.  Let’s hope the UK is not next in line for an expensive, badly designed and frankly dangerous scheme. I remain unconvinced, despite the fact that the EC require all member states to have installed smart meters for a80% of all domestic gas and electricity use by 2020.

More on smart meters here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/greenproperty/7456179/Green-property-smart-meters.html and More on UK data loss here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_UK_government_data_losses