Smart meters, the latest controversy…

Forgot wind turbines and even fracking, the latest controversy set to hit the energy world is smart meters.  The UK has one of the largest programmes of smart meter installation in the world.  The news was this week that the programme has been delayed by a year.  Not the first such delay I believe and being cynical not the last.

Before we get to the controversy, what are these devices meant to do?  As we said in our book smart meters are meant to “monitor total energy consumption in real time and predict and manage trends.”.  We wrote about smart meters in the context of smart grids and devices.  The flow of electricity in the future will be a two-way flow between
consumers and the grid (with most consumers having micro-generation fitted).  The price of power will vary greatly depending on demand and consumers will use smart devices such as washing machines which spread the load by switching themselves on when the electricity is plentiful and cheap. (British Gas are encouraging their customers to do this now as they start to fit smart meters).  With a very high penetration of micro-generation controlling the grid will become that much more difficult as the Germans are finding with over 30GWp of PV installed.  On workdays the problem is not so difficult, but on weekends the very high PV output is providing up to 50% of Germany’s power in summer.  This could lead ironically to grid shut-down as two things happen if there is an excess of power (the grid frequency and voltage rise).  Both of these have to operate within set limits otherwise electronic devices using the power can be damaged.  There are a number of technical solutions to this problem but it would be easy to manage with smart meters.

These would send data to the grid management utility periodically, say every 30 minutes, telling them how much power you are using and if you generate how much you are producing.  A display would tell you this, also how much you are paying for any imported power (and presumably exported power) as well.  They would obviously do away with the demand for meter readers as well, which is why the utilities are so keen on them.  They should allow users to save energy.

The controversy is as follows.  Firstly,  of course cost.  Someone has to pay for this and the consumer will have to foot the bill through increased electricity and gas charges (they will measure gas use as well).  The cost is somewhere between £100-300 per person.  The idea is that smart meters should save the user money although the kind of savings being talked about are small, so will take many years to be recouped by the user-although this is at today’s power prices.

The second controversy is over privacy and security.  There are a number of aspects to this.   Your utility will learn a lot about how you use energy (and try to sell you services on the back of this data).  So will will anyone else who can hack into or intercept your data.  Of course people will be able to tell when you are sleeping or out.  There are supposed to be cases in Germany of people whose houses have been robbed due to thieves getting their hands on this data. The last issue is that of cyber security.  A number of states have already been implicated in cyber attacks and there are concerns that hackers could completely shut down the grid by switching the meters off remotely.

I personally feel that these concerns are overblown or with good design can be removed completely.  On the issue of your power company knowing your energy use pattern.  So what.  They can only guess at what you are up to.  With 22 million smart meters or how ever many there will be (this number does not include businesses) thieves are unlikely to choose you.  This can also be designed out.  Currently smart meters use 4G phone technology to transmit the data.  If power-line transfer technology* was used instead then hackers would find it very much more difficult to intercept the transmissions at source.  They would have to hack the utility which they could do now.  This would also overcome the problem British Gas seem to be having when they turn up to fit a meter and find there is 4g coverage.  The problem with shut down by hackers is due to the utilities wanting to cut non-payers off remotely.  Firstly, I would say people who cannot pay should not be cut off and they should be more humane ways of dealing with this (renegotiating payment comes to mind).  But if this has to be done why not cut-off to be done by someone coming around with a key which allows them to turn a switch?

Despite the concerns I still think that smart meters have too many advantages over grid management and energy conservation to be ruled out.  Most of these concerns could be mitigated with some thoughtful design.

*uses a frequency very different from 50Hz mains to transmit a signal along a power cable (say 600Hz), this has no effect on electrical equipment used to 50Hz.


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