Smart meters, or not?

Readers may have seen a recent TV programme that was highly critical of the energy smart meter “roll out”. Some of you may now be wondering why a nation that made a mess of the simple task of adopting a modern measurement system is now embarking on a complex and expensive technology project of questionable value.

One of our regular contributors has written to the Editor as follows:

“I know this is a consumer issue, but is there any case for bringing the totally dumb SMART meters into the site? So far I have seen the Scottish Power display showing gas in square metres instead of cubic metres, very smart indeed! Running consumption in pounds, not it seems watts and certainly not anything smart like joules. A very expensive, and as far as I can see, totally useless piece of technology for technology sake.”

As it happens, the Editor has recently had a smart meter installed for his domestic water supply. The meter has not been activated, but Thames Water say that by logging on to their web site it will be possible to find out actual daily consumption (in litres), and obtain a forecast of average daily usage (again in litres) and an estimated annual bill for water supply. From this information, it should also be possible to forecast the annual bill for water treatment. So far so good, unless your occupation is meter reader.

However, the TV programme was more concerned about proposals for the installation of energy smart meters nationwide, estimated to cost between eleven and fifteen thousand million pounds. It debunked the energy companies’ claim that these meters are free – consumers will of course pay through their energy bills. And it could find little positive to say about the reasons for the project or the justification for its enormous cost.

We would like to hear from readers who have had an energy smart meter installed.

For gas, how do you work out how much gas you have used and how much it will cost you? The meter presumably records consumption in cubic metres. The calorific value of gas is quoted in megajoules per cubic metre. In the past, a correction was applied on the bill both for pressure/volume and for the conversion to the units traditionally used for electricity, namely kWh. Does the smart meter make clear how it converts volume of gas to cost? And is it helping you to save energy, which is one of the justifications for that £11 billion bill?

For electricity, are you able to determine the power you are using at any moment? And does the display, like that for the smart water meter, give actual daily consumption of energy, and provide a forecast of average daily usage of energy and an annual estimated bill? And, once again, is it helping you to save energy?

In particular, it would be interesting to hear how a smart meter copes with different day and night charges for electricity. Clearly in this case, increasing energy consumption does not always result in increased cost cost – by moving usage to the cheaper period, it is possible to increase energy consumption while decreasing its overall cost.

And finally, does the SI unit for energy, the joule, appear in any of this? From the earliest days of domestic electricity supply in the UK, the unit of measurement has been the kilowatt hour, and this has be used for the calibration of traditional electricity meters. When domestic gas supply went metric in the 1980s, there was an opportunity to adopt the modern unit of energy for billing. But this was seen as a step too far, and gas followed the practice in the electricity supply industry. Have energy smart meters followed traditional practice and avoided the joule whenever possible?

Your answers please.

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6 Responses to Smart meters, or not?

  1. Robert says:

    I used to have a smart electricity meter, but two months after it was installed I switched suppliers and it promptly became a dumb meter, which pretty much sums up the mess the UK has made of the smart meter roll-out. The in-house display has the advantage that I can read the meter whilst sitting at my PC, and type the reading into my energy supplier website. This is not quite how this is supposed to work :). Alas I then have to run down to the garage anyway to read off my gas consumption ... in cubic feet. Yes, for gas I have an antediluvian meter, but changing it will be a major undertaking because the regs have changed since my house was built. There have been two abortive attempts to change it already.
    The in-house display for the electricity meter displays current power usage in kW and money (the rate having not updated since I switched suppliers). I can also get the reading in kWh, and usage graphs over various timespans. There are also many other things I can display, like CO2 emissions (in metric), but I have a life beyond analysing my electricity usage. And therein lies the rub. I know what all these things mean and can make use of them where I choose to, such as checking that nothing has started using unexpected amounts of electricity, but most people probably wont understand the displayed information, and will have no interest in it. There is a traffic light indicator that indicates usage in a more user-friendly form, but if it switched to red in the middle of the night, would anyone be watching it? There is a warning beeper, but do you really want that going off every time you boil the kettle? Anyhow, whenever I've left something on accidentally, it's usually the heat, noise, or light it emits that alerts me, not the in-house display.
    Given that most people don't even bother to switch suppliers, I've never believed smart meters will have a big effect on consumption. In my personal opinion, the biggest advantage will be that they will put an end to the hit-and-miss process of transferring the meter reading to the energy supplier. And when they do finally figure out how to update my gas meter, I wont have to open my garage to a complete stranger. The loss of jobs is a concern, but the current system doesn't really work very well.

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  2. John Steele says:

    Are US answers of any interest? I have Smart water and electric meters, dumb gas meter. I think it is mainly to benefit the company by eliminating meter readers and lower labor costs.

    My water meter is a human-readable dial device in the basement, but it now has a link to a small radio responder on the front of my house. A van can drive down the street and read all the meters at the residential speed limit instead of a man plodding down the street, reading a repeater dial on the outside of the house. It is read and billed quarterly, and is minimal change from the prior practice. Water is billed in units of 1000 (US) gallons here.

    The smart electric meter sends regular data to the electric company, but it still results in a monthly bill in kilowatt-hours. There is a website that I can go to and look at plots or tables of my electrical usage. There must be some averaging, but the data is only a few minutes behind. Frankly, I looked at the data a few times, and never looked again. I will say it informs them of a power outage immediately. If I call to report an outage, they already know it, how many homes are affected, and announce their (initial and rudimentary) action plan. For people who have a secondary interruptible meter (usually for air conditioning) they can send a signal to the meter for rolling blackouts. We don't have time of day billing here, but the plot the electric company shows would support it. The meter is just transmitting usage data back to central servers; the real smarts are added there.

    Some people here are VERY concerned that these devices transmit data via radio waves and are panicked over health effects. Yet these same people use cellular phones and WiFi.

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  3. Alex Bailey says:

    A thought occurred reading John Steele’s reply… he mentions radio responders in meters, I had electricity and gas meters in a new house in the UK 25 years ago (part of an experiement in part of Milton Keynes) and they probably used these for about 18 months before reverting to actually reading the meters. I never found out why they suddenly stopped and was surprised that little was ever heard about them since, several new-builds later I’ve still yet to see another one of these devices.

    Working in IT it won't surprise me if smart meters suffer the same fate, at least in the short term, as companies seem more intent on working on their own bespoke systems than working together to provide something usable. After all, who wants to spend money installing a device in a customer premises for them to use that device with another supplier 6 months later?

    Like metrication, it would need some measure of legislation/regulation to move this forward in a more sane manner.

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  4. Stan says:

    I don't have a smart meter - yet - but have registered an interest. It'll be interesting to see what I get when it comes to it, but I am not hopeful..

    I guess common sense should tell us that it is unlikely to save energy. Why would energy suppliers want us to do so? It would be like the breweries getting their customers to drink less.

    I think John Steele has it about right. It is to save their money not ours.

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  5. Daniel Jackson says:

    One of the main advantages of smart meters is that they are fully digital. This means that there would be no cost to switching them to different units. Changing analog meters from kilowatt-hours to joules is extremely costly. However, once all digital meters are installed it takes only a minor programing change to switch them to display in joules in one mass swoop.

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  6. Stan says:

    On the aspect of measurement units I would have thought that so called "smart meters" would be programmed to display the measured consumption directly and exclusively in kWh (better still in MJ but since they are not used in billing ...).

    Displaying in £ is tariff dependant and varies too much. If the object is to save energy then that is what you need to see.

    Still, as usual, that kind of simplicity is too much to hope for. The UK has always made a muck of measurement so why should this be any different?

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