There’s nothing like an energy crisis to bring out the urban myths about what’s stealing all of our electricity. The most prevalent of these is the concept of vampire or phantom power, where devices which are left plugged in or on standby are demonised, with the claim that they consume kiloWattHours of energy, pushing up our bills. Given that electricity prices in the UK look set to triple this year, that’s a big worry. However, many of the figures I see being used to support this are decades old, which means that some of the advice being given is misleading or downright wrong. So I thought it would be a good time to look at exactly how much power our devices actually take, so that people can make informed decisions.
It was all meant to be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with smart meters installed in every home in Great Britain, with an extra two years to finish off the “difficult” ones. That was quickly revised to make the end of 2020 the target date, since when it has been consistently pushed back as the industry has struggled with executing a badly thought out programme. Last month, the latest figures released by the UK Government for working smart meters (the graph excludes the ones which have been fitted but aren’t working), show that we haven’t quite made it to the half-way mark yet, with electricity smart meter fittings approaching the 50% mark, with gas lagging slightly behind. It’s taken around 8 years to get this far, which suggests that we probably won’t have the rollout complete this side of 2030. Whilst the number of installations is increasing, within the next few years, the connection technology they use looks as if it will become obsolete, so we’re going to have to start replacing or upgrading many of those already installed.
If you’ve been following the GB Smart Metering story, you’ll already know that it is one of the worst examples of a Government led IT disaster, which has already cost the taxpayer around £20 billion. In the latest twist to the sorry saga, we have just had the bizarre phenomenon of National Meter Reading Day, when millions of energy consumers effectively performed a Distributed Denial of Service attack on the 31st March, by submitting their energy readings. It resulted in the websites of most of our leading energy suppliers crashing.
The background to this is that consumer energy prices in the UK have just taken a substantial hike. On the 1st April, a price cap enforced by the Government was lifted, allowing energy suppliers to raise tariffs. On his popular Money Show Live TV program, Martin Lewis urged customers to make a note of their meter readings on 31st April and to submit them to their supplier’s website. The following message went viral:
Back in 2010, I was the CTO of a small energy startup, designing connected domestic energy sensors, along with some fairly hardcore data analytics, to help consumers work out what was contributing to their energy bills. It was a fairly crowded market as small companies saw the potential for promoting energy efficiency to consumers and investigating ways to use emerging battery technologies to smooth out household demand and reduce cost. Few of those companies survived. Energy suppliers acquired some, then shut them down as they realised that persuading consumers to spend less money didn’t really fit well with their business model. The energy suppliers also had bigger issues, such as dealing with the Government’s impending Smart Metering programme. A few of the startups have survived and were looking forward to renewed interest arising from the UK hosting the COP26 summit.
A couple of months back I started to hear from them that promises to be involved in the events surrounding COP26 were being withdrawn, because space needed to be allocated to other companies that were “closer” to the Government. It seemed that what you knew was less important than who you knew. NetZero nepotism appeared to be kicking in. It felt reminiscent of what we saw at the start of the pandemic, where companies with engineering expertise were asked to help design and build ventilators. A few months later, those efforts were quietly put on the shelf. Instead, contracts for PPE and Test & Trace took precedence. They were easier for Government ministers to comprehend than real engineering, so could be packaged up in marketing campaigns and handed out to the Friends of Dominic and Matty. This week’s damning report from the Public Accounts Committee has described Test & Trace as “muddled, overstated, with an eye-wateringly expensive budget of over £37 billion, which has failed on its main objectives”. That £37 billion is not vastly different from what the equally muddled and overstated Smart Metering programme will have cost the consumer by the time it’s complete, showing that the Government is not generally the best judge of who can deliver, or the way to do it. If we want to achieve our NetZero objectives, it’s vital that we don’t go down the same route.
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.
Last week, the UK Government finally admitted the obvious, presumably in the hope that the announcement would be lost in the Brexit noise, which is that the GB Smart Metering Programme rollout has been delayed by four years to 2024. For those who don’t know the history, back in 2011, the Government announced that it was instigating a smart metering programme which would see 53 million domestic smart meters installed by the end of 2019. We’re approaching that date and the latest figures show that only 2 million compliant SMETS2 meters have been installed. Despite many of us having pointed out the issues for years, it’s only now that reality has dawned on our ministers, who have set a new target of 2024. Many in the industry believe that’s equally fictional and are suggesting that 2030 is more realistic. That would mean a total of nineteen years for a project that was originally meant to take less than seven years to complete. Over the course of the project, costs have spiralled, although BEIS – the ministry now in charge of the project are still doing their best to dream up magic benefits, presumably because of a concern that if they revealed the full impact, any Minister in their right mind would cancel the project.
The announcement was hardly unexpected. Along with many others, I have been critical of the project since its early days, when it became obvious that that it was being driven by ideology rather than practical requirements. Countries such as Italy managed a national deployment in a couple of years at a fraction of the price. The difference with the GB programme is that it was politically led, turning into the latest in a long line of Government IT disasters. However, the announcement is timely, as it comes at the point when our current Ministers are promoting a technical solution to the Irish border as an alternative to the backstop. If we assume that the same mistakes will occur, as they have done again and again in previous IT projects, it is unlikely that we would see anything workable in place before 2030. More worryingly, it is likely to be hacked by organised crime well before that.