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.

Let’s start with the advert, which I found in this week’s Time Out. 

The message they’re trying to get across is that if you have a smart meter installed, it will save you an amount of energy each year equivalent to what you’d use if you were to charge your mobile phone for 177 years.  As an advertising message I’m not sure it would win any awards or make anyone rush out to get a smart meter installed.  In terms of marketing magic, it’s on a par with advertising sushi as cold, raw, dead fish.  But the bigger problem is that it’s not true – it’s just a marketing lie.  You wouldn’t be able to charge your phone for 177 years – it’s more likely to be somewhere between 7 and 17 years.  Let’s see why.

To start off, it’s useful to go back to basics to see where their underlying numbers come from.  So let’s start with how much energy the average British home uses each year.  Despite the fact that Government ministers regularly say we need smart meters to stop electricity use rising, their own records show that it has been steadily falling for most of the past twenty years, largely because appliances keep on getting more efficient, predominantly as a result of EU directives on energy efficiency.  (Those appliance star ratings have been remarkably effective in getting manufacturers to think about making more efficient products.)  BEIS – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy know this.  In their  Energy Consumption in the UK report of July last year, we see that:

  • Average gas consumption increased by 4.6 per cent to 13,801 kWh, and by 1.7 per cent on a temperature corrected basis. (I.e. it was colder than expected.)
  • Average electricity consumption continued to fall, by 0.8 per cent to 3,889 KWh (sic) in 2016. (Note that they don’t seem to know whether it’s kWh or KWh.  You would think that if they had any technical competence they would know that KWh is wrong.)

This is Smart Energy GB’s starting point to get to their 177 year number.

  • They’ve added up the average gas usage of 13,801 kWh and the electricity consumption of 3.889 kWh to come up with an average total energy usage of 17,690 kWh per year.
  • They’ve then applied their average saving of 2% to work out how much you’d save, which comes to 354 kWh per year.
  • They’ve assumed a smartphone takes about 2kWh / year for charging (as we’ll see, it doesn’t), divided 354 by 2 and concluded that the saving could power your phone for 177 years.

We know the 17,690 kWh figure is right, but where did the figure of 2% for savings come from? 

This is where it gets interesting.  There is limited evidence about real energy savings from having a smart meter.  Studies around the world suggest that electricity smart meters with in home displays could save you as much as 6 %, but they might end up costing you more.  The “costing you more” finding is from a recent report from Australia, which showed that usage could increase if consumers started to engage with smart home products.  This is an interesting report, which observed that “The potential lifestyle benefits enabled by smart control could both increase and decrease energy consumption depending on the household’s pre-existing practices.”  It went on to say that “It is clear that successfully installing and using smart home control devices is not guaranteed to reduce energy consumption, and may in fact increase it.”  Increasing the use of these smart home products by using Consumer Access Devices to replace the In Home Display is part of Smart Energy GB’s strategy, but they don’t talk about this report.  Neither does anyone else within the industry.  Like pharmaceutical companies trying to cover up papers highlighting the side effects of their drugs, everyone involved in the GB Smart Metering project is putting paper bags over their heads and shouting “La-la-la”.  It’s a real problem, as it makes it difficult to get anyone involved with the smart metering bandwagon to make decisions based on evidence.

Even when they start quoting research, there’s a problem with all of these estimates of energy savings, as they are invariably small scale trials, generally in countries with very different energy usage to Britain.  That’s because most smart meters have been deployed in places which experience excessive energy use from domestic air conditioners and swimming pools, such as California, Texas, Arizona and Australia.  We have the Gulf Stream, which gives us a climate which doesn’t really go with air conditioners and pools, so it’s unclear whether any of these figures have any relevance to Britain.  Despite that, the justification for the GB Smart Metering Programme is based on these numbers. 

What these reports do show is that the effect of a smart meter is generally only a short term behavioural change.  After six to twelve months, users revert back to their normal usage.  Having a smart meter and an In Home Display will probably persuade people to change their halogen bulbs to LED bulbs a year before they would have otherwise have done, which is why the surveys report an early win, but it’s not long term.  It is a real saving, but it’s a one off and doesn’t justify having £285 appearing on your bill over the course of time to cover the cost of the smart meter. 

Smart Energy GB and BEIS have always claimed that it is not short term, but a long term effect, although the advert does seem to suggest they may be modifying this view.  It states that “Get a smart meter and you could save enough energy to charge your phone for 177 years”.  Given that their calculation is based on just one year of savings, it implies that any reduction in energy usage is limited to those first twelve months.  If you continued to save the same amount of energy in subsequent years, then, based on their calculations, over the ten year life of the meter you’d be able to charge your phone for almost two millenia.  Or not.

Incidentally, these savings are only for electricity.  I know of no evidence showing that smart meters reduce gas usage.  There’s a simple reason for that.  Gas is mainly used for heating or hot water.  Whereas you see your electricity usage more or less straight away, the gas usage is only updated on your In Home Display every half hour.  Because of that you don’t know whether it’s changed because you’re heating the house, having a shower or cooking dinner, which means there’s no behavioural nudge.  If you want to save gas, get a smart thermostat.  You could save money from having a cooler shower, but your In Home Display won’t tell you that, as you’ll be in the shower where you can’t see it and it’s still showing you the amount of gas you used twenty nine minutes ago.  Although it might not be a bad thing for some of the “creatives” at Smart Energy GB to try taking electrical appliances into the shower with them. 

But back to the figures.  Where does the 2% saving they quote come from?  Is it just for electricity or electricity plus gas?  That’s important to know, because phone chargers aren’t gas powered.  Smart Energy GB don’t tell us, so we need to try and work it out.  Going back to some published numbers, the 2016 Impact Assessment for smart metering from BEIS states that “As a result of consumers using energy more efficiently and suppliers passing through net cost savings, the roll-out is expected to reduce the combined electricity and gas bill for the average household by £11 in 2020”.  The Government has just published their 2018 update to energy prices, which shows the average domestic electricity bill as £619 and the average gas bill as £630, giving a total of £1,249.  The projected £11 saving from BEIS is only 1% of the total, but it’s 2% of the electricity, so we can assume Smart Energy GB has ignored any savings from gas and based all of their saving on reduced electricity consumption.  That’s the first fudge.  It also means they think the smart gas meter is useless.

Their next mistake is that they’ve forgotten that the cost of gas and electricity are very different.  For the same energy output, gas is about one third of the cost of electricity, which is why we use it for the energy intensive things like heating and hot water.  Now we know that their savings come from electricity alone, the starting figure for energy consumption that they should have used is the one for electricity, which is not 17,690 kWh, but 3,889 kWh.  Apply the 2% saving to this and you’ve only saved 78 kWh per year, under half of the 177 kWh that their advert claims.  But how long would that charge your phone for?

It’s quite tricky working that out.  In the small print at the bottom of their advert they say they’re calculating this on a figure of 2kWh per year for a smartphone.  But where does that 2kWh come from?  I’ve found various estimates, which range from 1.5 and 7 kWh per year from ZDNet up to 20 kWh per year from Whizzcells.  That’s quite a range, so let’s do a “thumb in the air” calculation to get an idea of what is sensible.  Let’s take an iPhone6, which has a 1.8 Ah battery, which charges from a 5V supply.  If we assume you use the battery up each day and need to recharge it, and that the charging circuitry is 75% efficient, which allows you to leave the charger plugged in after you’ve used it, your annual energy usage is:

(1.8 Ah x 5 V x 365 days) / 0.75  

Which comes out to around 4.4 kWh per year.  So that should be the minimum figure to use.  If you’ve got a bigger phone, like a Samsung Galaxy A9 pro with a 5,000 mAh battery, then it would be closer to 12kWh.  Charge your phone more than once per day and it will be higher.  What this shows is that their figure of 2 kWh is very optimistic. 

We now have all of the correct numbers to do the final calculation.  If we divide our energy saving of 78 kWh by 4.4 kWh, then we find that we’d be able to charge an iPhone 6 for 17 years.  If we have a  or a Galaxy A9 it would only be 7 years, both of which are very different from Smart Energy GB’s headline promise of 177 years.

Whilst this may sound picky, I object to paying £192 million to a body which can’t do primary school arithmetic, but just makes things up to justify their existence.  On the same day I saw this ad, they ran a full page advertorial in the Daily Telegraph extolling how secure smart meters would be, stuffed with industry platitudes.  It which probably cost £50,000 and tells us nothing, other than saying “it will all be fine”.  I would compare Smart Energy GB with Orwell’s Minitrue, were it not for the fact that they might take it as a compliment.  They certainly believe in the approach that “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”.

As a contrast, I’d like to recommend the Energy Saving Trust.  They’ve been promoting energy saving for years on a much smaller budget.  Their website has an excellent collection of Energy Saving Quick Wins, along with how much each might save you.  Some examples are:

  • Only fill the kettle with the amount of water you need (this is Smart Energy GB’s perennial favourite), which will save you £6 per year.
  • Don’t use running water to wash up – use hot water in a bowl. It saves you £25 per year.
  • Get an efficient shower head. That saves you £75 per year.
  • Spend one minute less in the shower, saving you a further £80 per year.
  • Turn down your heating or get a smart thermostat. Saving £150 per year.

Instead, BEIS wants us to pay £285 for vastly overcomplicated smart meters in order to save £11 per year (these are their figures from their most recent impact assessment), and they have given Smart Energy GB £192 million of our money to try and persuade us that this is a good thing.  Putting that £11 annual saving in context, WRAP – the Waste and Resources Action Programme, estimate that the average cost of food and drink waste is £480 per household.  If the Government really wanted to help households save money they’d fund bodies like the Energy Saving Trust and WRAP, not continue to push a ridiculous smart metering programme which will cost us money.

I would urge you to complain about this advert to the Advertising Standard Authority – it won’t be the first time they’ve had a complaint about a Smart Energy GB advert.  Also, write to you MP to ask them why the smart metering program is still going ahead.  The National Audit Office is about to conduct a review and the wider the input it gets, the better. 

The really sad thing is that all of this nonsense is being paid for by us as consumers, because the GB Smart Metering Program is allowing all of these costs to be added to our energy bills.  If these costs had appeared on a Government department’s accounts, the programme would probably have been cancelled long ago.  However, shifting the cost like this means that the Government gets off the hook, with the added advantage that they can then blame the energy suppliers for putting up energy bills.  Conspiracy theorists might claim that this is clever planning, but that assumes a level of competence within BEIS (or DECC before them), which anyone involved with them would know isn’t the case.  As the exercise above illustrates, the programme is being run by incompetents with virtually no technical knowledge.  There are some very good arguments for smart meters and some countries have deployed them very effectively at a fraction of the cost we will be paying.  But whilst we spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to make silk purses out of sows’ ears, none of us will see any benefit.