Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"Smart" energy meters in the UK

As many of you will know, the government and energy companies are pushing the "smart" meter upgrade throughout the UK. The set date for saturation is 2020 which is the government target date. They in turn have commissioned smartenergygb.com to be the 'voice' of the rollout program and to provide consumers with information on the rollout.

This is all well and good, until you look at the technical aspect of what is happening and how it's been implemented. The basics are this. You have an electricity and gas supply to your home, at present this is metered for consumption and the values are used by the energy company to bill you accordingly. Traditionally these meters simply displayed the consumed units and either a meter reader (An employee of the gas or electricity distribution network) would come and read the meter periodically or you provide a meter reading yourself to your energy company. The rest of the time estimates were made on your use and billed accordingly. Generally over the year some bills were higher than they should be and some lower, and at the end of the year the credit/debit was organised and you continued paying the bills. Quite simple really, and to be honest I never had a major issue with this, the corrections were straight forward and not usually ridiculous providing readings were kept up with.
The smart rollout was to eliminate this, the smart meter was a replacement for the dial on the front of the meter and has a small embedded SIM card (Mobile phone data connection). This then lets the meter send it's readings periodically over the air to their control/contact centre who would then pass that onto the energy company to correct your bill and payments accordingly. This sounds a good system, the meters will be able to report on usage, potentially providing better savings for consumers, reduced overheads (No more meter readers going out to every home in the UK) and gave a generally more accurate view of energy consumption in almost real-time (This may also help the energy suppliers, i.e. they can see in a real-time view where is consuming lots of power other than relying on the grid consumption figures).
Many smart meters also come with an "In-home display" to show you in realtime what your energy usage is, and in this age of saving energy helps the end user cut down on their use of gas and electricity, reducing their bills but also helping the environment. These "in-home displays" use a low-range wireless signal to talk to the energy meter and are paired at installation (It roughly uses the Zigbee protocol but using encryption and key-pairs for security).
The installation of the smart meters is a quick job, as it's generally replacing just the front 'display' plate of the meter.
I'm unsure the battery lifetime in these units as typically there isn't a usable supply of power to the location of the two meters (Even the electricity meter, it would be tricky to tap into the power, drop it to a safe voltage, etc) so the assumption is that they all have batteries in them.

The figures for the rollout are around £11 billion to the uk, but are supposedly offset by the savings of an estimated £17 billion, so should these figures be accurate it is an overall saving to the scheme.

And now onto some of the downsides that I've observed and seen reported. Firstly the installation, you have to be there for part of the day to have them installed, this is because there will be a break in your supply as the meter is changed over. The scheduling of the engineer, etc, is all pretty smooth and for us went without any issues.
Then you get the in-home display, which is nice, but seems a bit lacking in features. For instance, the default display shows you the current tariff. Which isn't that useful. You need to switch screens to see your current consumption in kw/h so you can then watch and see when large amounts of power/gas are being used. The screen then defaults back to the tariff display after a few minutes. So this didn't really do what I'd hoped for. It also didn't have any output, connection, computer link or similar that I could tap into and add to my home automation screens/systems.
(At present I use a clamp meter style unit that gives me current power consumption for the house)

Then the really bad design. There are different smart meters deployed in the UK by different energy suppliers and different meter fitters. On top of that, they're incompatible with each other, some don't work with some suppliers, some don't work with any other suppliers and some energy suppliers don't support any of the smart meters. How on earth did that come about? Surely it should have been decided (By UK government perhaps) that the smart meters were built to a standard, all the suppliers had to form part of that standard and support all of them. That way when you switch supplier the new supplier can take on the smart meter and use it.

I've just hit this particular issue. After being with Ovo for a couple of years, I then switched supplier to get a better deal and the new supplier cannot read any smart meters, so requests manual meter readings.
This is also a bit of an issue, as getting a manual meter reading is harder than the old meters. On the old ones, the constant display showed the current reading, so just note this down and you're done.
On a smart meter the screen is off by default and there is a 0-9 keypad beside it. Pressing this triggers all sorts of menus and information, so knowing the right value isn't as obvious as it seems. However after trial and error, and reading up on them they all support pressing 9 for the current reading.

It is probably these last facts with lack of compatibility between meters and suppliers that show the whole system up with it's flaws. These seem a big drawback to the scheme and surely this will skew the final results. Each home in the UK may well have a smart meter installed by 2020, but each energy company may not be able to read it and you will seem to have created a perpetual loop of installers coming out to install the right smart meter for the particular supplier you have chosen.
Hopefully this is being resolved and investigated, but at the moment the initial view is that they have re-employed the meter readers as smart meter upgraders and will perpetually go out swapping the smart meter to the right one for your supplier! So I'm a little bit sceptical about where the savings will be.

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