Smart Meters, Fake News and the IoT

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. 

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GB Smart Metering no longer financially viable

Last week the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), comprising 93 Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, delivered a devastating report on the British Smart Metering Project.  Titled “Not So Smart”, their headline assessment is that it is a “roll-out which is set to become yet another large scale public infrastructure project delivered well over budget which fails to deliver the expected benefits.”

It is very gratifying to see the issues I’ve been writing about for the last six years confirmed.  In the past, the energy industry and civil servants have succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of various Parliamentary Committees, who, lacking adequate technical expertise, have simply repeated the mantra that the project is more or less on track.  The British Infrastructure Group have cut through that obfuscation.  In their summary they suggest that the average consumer saving will be reduced to just £11 per year.

Whilst I applaud this report, I fear that the group members may still be wearing their rose-tinted ermine.  Their conclusion about the reduced savings comes from looking back at BEIS’ numbers from 2016.  If you look forward at the additional problems and costs which are still in the pipeline it becomes clear that the GB Smart Metering programme is no longer financially viable.  Rather than a saving of £11 per year for each household, it’s more likely to result in an increase in annual energy bills of £67 for the next decade.  With the publication of this report, the last vestiges of BEIS accountability have been ripped away.

Let’s examine what is still going wrong.

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Telling Lies about Smart Meters

What do you do when your smart metering plan isn’t working?  Looking at the efforts of Smart Energy GB, who are tasked with persuading the nation to install 50 million smart meters which aren’t really fit for purpose you do two things:

  • You ask the Government to double your funding with an additional £95 million of public money. Then…
  • You spend it on inaccurate adverts.

The particular advert I’m talking about demonstrates one of two things – either that Smart Energy GB are lying through their teeth, or they can’t add up.  Although given the sad history of this program, there’s a fair chance it could be both.

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Microsoft’s Fear Of Missing Out, or How NOT to design a Smart Thermostat

Last week, with a fair degree of razzmatazz and press coverage, Microsoft launched a smart thermostat called Glas.  Except it wasn’t really Microsoft’s.  And whilst it might be pretty, it certainly isn’t smart. 

If you look behind the promotional video, it’s clear that it’s not really driven by any desire to be smart.  It’s come out of Johnson Controls, who have been designing dumb thermostats for many years, and it perpetuates the dumb elements of control, which means it won’t save users as much money as a proper smart device could.  However, small things like the truth didn’t stop them headlining it as “reinventing the thermostat”.   I suspect the only reason that Glas exists is that Microsoft are currently in a poor third place in getting their Cortana speech recognition capability into the market.  I quite like Cortana, but compared with Amazon and Google’s success in persuading consumer product manufacturers to support their offerings, Cortana is definitely an also-ran.

What you see if you watch the video carefully is an outdated control system, a user interface that was probably inspired by Bishop Berkeley and an attempt to break the second law of thermodynamics.  All of which details appear to have slipped past the rose-tinted editorial glasses of the technology press, who have just said “Shiny – want one!”.  So let me explain why it’s another smart opportunity missed.

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Smart Power, Smart Meters and Smart Batteries

This week saw the launch of a new report entitled Smart Power, which investigates the future of our electricity supply.  It comes from a new body – the National Infrastructure Committee (NIC), and highlights the hole in supply caused by the planned closure of two thirds of our existing power stations by 2030, providing recommendations on the changes that they believe are required to ensure security of supply.

Unfortunately it’s promoted itself using the old trick of highlighting its major benefit as saving consumers money, with the headline press message suggesting it could deliver them savings of up to £8.1 billion per year in 2030.

I wish that the sector could get over its fixation with these spurious claims, so that we can focus on the real problem, which is the lack of a joined up energy policy.  The “savings” in this report aren’t what a consumer would expect a saving to be, which is lower prices, but instead a potential reining in of cripplingly higher prices which would result from doing nothing.  In other words, if we spend a bit more to increase bills now, we might not have to spend a lot more as a result of a further decade of dithering.  It reminds me of the protection rackets of gangster Chicago, where shopkeepers were forced to pay off mobsters to prevent having their businesses destroyed.  Why the energy sector wants to continue with its amateur production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” escapes me, but that’s clearly who the commission’s chair, Lord Adonis, is modelling himself on.  Cauliflowers all round…

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Use More Energy. Towards a UK Energy Policy

Three years ago, in a utility conference in Atlanta, I sat through a keynote by Tom Fanning, President and CEO of Southern Company – one of the largest US utilities.  In a typically Texan barn-storming style he argued that “to improve human existence let’s use more energy where we should”, going on to promote the message that every Texan in every trailer park was equally deserving of air conditioning and a 60″ TV.  It wasn’t what the audience expected, many of whom had come with concerns about smart meters, energy efficiency and outages.

Earlier this week I sat through the IET’s annual Mountbatten lecture, given by Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford.  The subject was The New Energy Landscape – low fossil fuel prices, decarbonisation and new technologies, based on his updated book – “The Carbon Crunch: How we’re getting climate change wrong – and how to fix it”.  Much to the surprise of the audience, this time mainly engineers involved with the energy industry, he gave much the same message – that’s it’s time to stop worrying about the cost of energy or energy efficiency.  Instead we should be planning a future where we can use as much as we want.

I urge you to watch his lecture, which is available on the IET website.  At the risk of oversimplification here’s my very abbreviated take on it, as well as some of the potential problems in changing Government policy. 

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