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Whether you have been bombarded with adverts or already had one installed, it is hard to miss the march of the smart meter. These new, digital gadgets promise to accurately track usage of electricity and gas throughout the day, week, month or even year, for energy providers and consumers alike.
It means that customers will be given accurate bills in real-time, rather than just estimates, and can adapt their energy usage to hit the best tariffs, which are in turn set by grid operators who can more accurately map demand and usage given the time of year, weather forecast or other factors.
There are also implications for integrating renewable energy. Plotting energy usage means operators can integrate solar, wind and other renewable sources into the grid and balance their networks without affecting supply. A smart grid system could mean that consumers who make their own energy – with solar panels, for example – to respond to price changes and sell their excess power back to the grid.
Installation requires a short appointment with your energy supplier to add some extra infrastructure at your property, but is currently offered for free and, in many instances, with incentives.
The EU aims to replace at least 80% of electricity meters with smart meters “wherever it is cost-effective to do so” before 2020, which it estimates could reduce emissions and consumption in Europe by up to 9 percent.
The UK Government pledged in 2016 to make smart meters available to all homes and businesses by the end of 2020, but stopped short of making this a legal obligation. In September it estimated that 4.9 million smart meters were installed in homes and businesses, while in November it predicted that they would deliver an estimated £5.7 billion of savings to consumers once rolled out.
These plans were then confirmed in this year’s Queen’s Speech as part of the Smart Meter Bill.
There are those who have voiced concerns over the smart meter push, however. Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of French-owned power company EDF Energy, has already called on the industry to “take stock” of potential problems.
“We need to be honest with ourselves on all the issues: security, safety, quality, costs and timeline,” he said to a trade conference this year.
All devices fitted so far are run on first-generation technology known as Smets1, considered to be more expensive, less sophisticated and less secure than Smets2 devices, which are being rolled out to market from now. Those older models will need replacing at cost to suppliers.
Indeed, the costs of installing new meters, estimated at £100 per customer, may pressure suppliers to raise household energy bills, as might the required IT infrastructure, which could cost £3.13 billion over 18 years.
Those suppliers who fail to meet government targets could be fined up to 10 per cent of their global turnover
Security is also an issue. French consumers campaigned against Linky, EDF’s new smart meter over fears that the meter could harvest very detailed data about users’ energy use, and therefore daily activities, posing both a privacy and a health risk.
Of the 300 million meters fitted by Landis+Gyr, a fast-growing company that was previously part of Toshiba and that makes and designs many models of smart meter, including the Linky, a fifth are considered “connected” devices capable of two-way communication between customer and supplier. This connection could be vulnerable to corporate hackers, and potentially puts very personal information at risk.
So, although smart meters are definitely on their way to your home and your office, they may not be the safe, cost-saving solution they seem on first glance.