Do smart meters spread Covid? Of course they don’t. Not even the fake news community have suggested that. As regular readers will know, I’ve been socially distancing from smart meters ever since the British Government took what was basically a good idea and morphed it into a £15 billion IT disaster. Despite that, I still got Covid.
Do smart meters encourage fake news? Absolutely. Here in the UK we have a Government funded agency called Smart Energy GB, which specialises in misleading advertisements in an attempt to persuade people to install the world’s most expensive smart meters. I believe they may have the honour of producing the largest number of advertisements from a Government body to be banned for misinformation. But they’re not letting a little issue like that stop them from peddling more fake news.
Smart Energy GB was created to persuade the 30 million households in Britain to have a smart meter installed. That target was set for the end of 2019, but has been beset by problems as the meters have become ever more complex and expensive. As a result, the target has been moved back to 2025. However, the latest reports from BEIS – the Government department responsible for the program, reveals that only just over 5 million of the correct type of meters (called SMETS2 meters) have been installed so far. With the advent of Covid, installations this year have plummeted. So, while the original plan would have seen Smart Energy GB closed down by now, they’ve just acquired a new CEO and requested a further £26 million to persuade us that the whole thing isn’t a colossal waste of time and money.
If we look at their previous campaigns, they started off with a pair of cartoon characters – Gaz and Leccy, who were meant to be stealing our money. Most people identified them with their energy suppliers and ignored them. Round two was an attempt to show how much we would save, comparing it to everyday tasks like driving wheelchairs and using your sewing machine. As well as demonstrating a poor understanding of most people’s everyday energy usage, this campaign also demonstrated Smart Energy GB’s innumeracy. To make the adverts look more realistic, they published their calculations for the savings, which included such wonderful pieces of arithmetic as believing that two times twelve is one hundred and twelve.
Realising that they were on shaky ground with primary school maths, and best with an increasing number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, they moved to more nebulous feelgood claims, equating the alleged energy savings to numbers of trees you could hug or cars on the road. Despite their best efforts, the public ignored the message.
With meter installations plunging to a level that’s not much better than end-of-life meter replacement rates, they’ve just launched their latest campaign. Created by the advertising giant AMV BDDO, it talks of “The Quiet Revolution” going on under our stairs or tucked in a cupboard, where smart meters are “dramatically upgrading our energy system, helping to achieve carbon neutral status and changing the future of the country”. Implying that the pandemic is over, it dispenses with numbers or facts, relying on an emotional attempt to make us equate smart meters with greener, renewable energy.
Here are the print adverts:
The problem is that it’s all fake news. Whatever benefits smart meters may offer, increasing the percentage of renewable generation or changing the future of the country are not valid reasons to install them. This is the same sort of spurious correlation that led to the claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism. As we saw there, the resulting damage can last a long time. To see how Smart Energy GB misrepresent the facts, let’s look at their claims in more detail.
The first “Smart Meters help give Britain Greener Energy” says that by having a smart meter, we will be “helping Britain’s energy system use more renewable resources. Meaning more wind and solar and less coal”. This is blatantly untrue. The relative proportion of energy generation is driven by Government regulation, subsidies for renewables and a generator’s assessment of investment risk for the different generating technologies. It has nothing to do with smart metering data. If smart meters reported domestic usage in real time, they might help in grid decisions about spot energy purchase, but the meters being deployed in Britain only report data every 24 hours, making them useless for this task.
Currently the only way a consumer can influence the mix of energy is by changing their energy supplier to one which promises to purchase and supply energy from renewable sources. Ironically, if you have a smart meter and make the decision to change supplier, the likelihood is that your smart meter will stop working. Of the 20 million smart meters currently installed, only around 5 million of them (the up-to-date SMETS2 meters) will continue to operate in smart mode when you change supplier, as they are tied to the supplier that installed them. Your new supplier will probably try to install a new smart meter, (to meet their Government imposed installation quota), sending your previous smart meter to landfill, which, if you realised it, would wipe away any smug feeling you might have about having made an eco-friendly choice.
The final statement that smart meters are “not too bad for the nation, either” fails to mention that the current smart meter deployment looks set to cost around £15 billion, all of which will appear on energy bills. Utilities are under no obligation to pass back any savings, if any, that they achieve from these smart meters.
The second advert “Smart Meter, Smarter Tech” is equally misleading. It claims that by having a smart meter installed, it will help Britain’s energy system adapt to new technology. The full-page image is of an electric vehicle charging, implying that in some way smart meters will help the grid accommodate electric vehicle charging.
Smart Meters do not help this. If you have a driveway or garage and install an electric car charger, there is a requirement to notify your electricity network. Most charge-points that are installed when you purchase an electric vehicle incorporate smart functionality and remote switching, meaning that they operate as smart meters in their own right. Hence, installing a smart meter as well would be duplication and a waste of resources. It follows that the statement that a smart meter will allow “Britain’s energy system to adapt to new tech” is spurious, and an egregious attempt to promote a Government policy on emotional appeal.
Neither of the adverts explain the benefits that might accrue from installing a smart gas meter, although they account for around 40% of installations. Instead, they concentrate on electricity, presumably because even Smart Energy GB can’t bring themselves to suggest that gas might come from renewable resources, or that someone is going to start selling gas powered cars. It is difficult to justify installing smart gas meters, but nobody at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), nor at DECC before them, bothered about that – they just got mugged by energy suppliers who saw an opportunity to sack their meter readers.
This three month advertising campaign cost £6 million to propagate lies. If you think that was a misuse of your money, then please complain to the Advertising Standards Authority. They have a very simple complaints page at https://www.asa.org.uk/make-a-complaint.html.
If the Government wants to deploy smart meters, something needs to change. The original target of 2019 was pushed out to 2020, then to 2024 and more recently to June 2025. That highlights another problem. At a recent Cambridge Wireless seminar on Low Power IoT, the panel were asked when they thought that the UK would turn off its 2G and 3G cellular network, which is used for around two thirds of Britain’s smart meters. Many countries have already done this, as it is far more efficient for network operators to use this spectrum for 4G and 5G services. The recent introduction of 5G in the iPhone 12 will accelerate this desire to “sunset” the 2G and 3G services. The conclusion at the seminar was that it’s likely to happen shortly after 2025. This means that at the point where we might complete the smart meter roll-out, two thirds of them would stop working. To bring them back to life, the Government would either have to replace the communication hub in these meters (which would cost around £1.5 billion), or compensate the network providers to keep on running an obsolete network, which would probably cost them even more.
When the Smart Metering programme was originally conceived, Government ministers promoted Britain’s lead, claiming that it was a “world-beating” initiative, putting Britain at the forefront of smart metering. (We’ve heard that same sentiment more recently with our Covid Track and Trace solution.) The reality is that our smart metering programme is seen as a joke. In contrast, the Chinese Government sees smart metering as an opportunity to gain dominance in the new Narrow Band IoT technology (NB-IoT) by installing a second generation of smart meters. The intention is to deploy around 500 million of these by the end of 2024 and they are on track to achieve that. Chinese companies are already exporting these meters and their installation expertise to other countries. Ironically, the 5G NB-IoT technology the Chinese meters use was developed in the UK, but rejected for the GB smart metering programme in favour of a 2G solution which everyone knew would soon be obsolete.
Parliament keeps on forcing BEIS to produce updated Impact Assessments, which show the escalating cost of the GB Smart Metering Programme. What these don’t do is ask whether it’s worth stopping and starting again. The current meter specifications were started around the time that Steve Jobs stepped down from Apple, back in 2010. Technology has moved on since then. We are probably at the point where the most cost-effective approach would be to abandon the current smart metering project and replace it with Chinese smart meters for electricity. That would give us a working solution which could be installed by 2025 (especially if the installations were performed by the DNOs and not the energy suppliers) and which would have a 10 – 15 year working life. It will give our cellular network operators the incentive they need to install a country-wide NB-IoT network, which will benefit a host of other connected applications and industries, including Britain’s future in the IoT. We can ignore gas meters, as if we want to hit our net-zero targets, we need to start phasing out gas boilers and replacing them with electric heating, so gas needs to go away within the lifetime of the new smart meters.
This will all cost less than trying to complete the current deployment and mean that we don’t have to keep on paying through the nose for fake news campaigns from Smart Energy GB. There are many good reasons for deploying smart meters, but they need to be cost effective. Carrying on from bad to worse with the status quo and continuing to haemorrhage money to a technically illiterate organisation which thinks a neat soundbite is more important than the truth is not one of them.