It’s time to give smart meter power to the people

There are several reasons why the UK roll out of smart electricity meters has failed to meet successive targets. Delays have partly been down to shortages of engineers and Covid. More importantly, the government, at the behest of some sections of industry, made fundamental errors 20 or so years ago in the model for how smart meters should be deployed and managed.

The biggest mistake was setting the wrong priorities in smart meter specification and how the data should be used. Instead of a primary purpose of making the system smart and giving consumers access to their own data, the system was designed to provide data for big energy companies. Rather than empowering consumers to manage their own energy actively, it places new levels of control with their suppliers.

The electricity consumption information fed back to customer displays is a poor substitute for active energy management at a home level. From the consumer perspective, SMETS2 meters are a long way short of smart.

Customers vs Big Brother

One of the  drags on the uptake of smart meter is consumer resistance to handing even more data and control to Big Brother suppliers, according to MoneyWeek. There are also concerns about vulnerability to hackers, scare stories about wildly inaccurate bills and worries about being switched to pay-as-you-go tariffs without warning. People have the right to refuse having them fitted – and some certainly do..

There is a simple solution that would fully realises the potential of SMETS2 meters’ capabilities. It is to enable consumers to interact directly with the meter – to use the data themselves to exploit the opportunities of time-of-use tariffs, and manage everything from EV charging to heating.

The Home Area Network HAN) technologies to enable this transfer of control are already embedded in SMETS2 meters (see The BEAMA Connected Homes Demonstration – Beyond Smart Metering). All it needs is an enterprising manufacturer to develop a truly smart energy controller for the home that would hook into the meter, without the data needing to leave the house. This ’smart home hub’ concept was envisaged at the dawn of smart metering, but never pursued fully.

Smart Meters’ True Purpose

Getting back to basics, the primary role of smart meters should be to provide data on power flows, and changing patterns of supply, demand and voltages, so the grid can be balanced to maximise efficiency and reliability of supply, while minimising carbon emissions. As it is, the focus is on reading meters remotely for billing purposes – and providing information for suppliers at higher managing levels. The consumer interface is not a priority.

Unlike many countries, the current UK smart meter system is built around a national network, with the primary “customer” of the data being Energy Suppliers. The system is operated by the Data Communications Company (DCC). The cost and convoluted nature of the process are clearly disincentives for energy companies to develop the closer relationships they need with customers, using data fully to make networks truly smart.

The UK’s convoluted smart meter communications system. Image courtesy of DCC.

I am not suggesting that the existing regime should be dismantled, as it certainly has value. But I believe there are tremendous opportunities for bypassing the system and giving consumers control of their own data in parallel with it i.e. operating their own smart home energy networks.

Local Data Is Best

Working on the principle that energy data is of maximum value when it highly detailed and in real time, there are also opportunities for DNOs to interact with data from smart meters on a local level, i.e. groups of houses and businesses on or two miles from the nearest substation, without the need to use the DCC system for every data transaction.

Consumer-to-substation data interaction would enable DNOs and customers to work closely together from the ground up, rather than the top down. And instead of being controlled by Big Brother, customers could start to feel the power of controlling their own energy consumption, costs and carbon emissions.

The smart meter roll-out so far

According to the data published in November 2023, some 60% of electricity and gas meters in homes in England, Scotland and Wales are now smart. But that leaves over 21 million meters still to upgrade.

Energy firms now have until the end of 2025 to fit smart meters in 75% of homes.

Firms have annual installation targets they have to meet but progress on the roll-out has been slower than planned. The main reasons for this are shortages of engineers to fit smart meters and energy firms saying they’ve exhausted the customers who want them, according to a National Audit Office report published in June 2023.

The official national smart meter roll-out began in 2011, and was meant to finish in 2020. But installations were paused at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and suppliers were given additional time to install smart meters.

Until 2019, the majority of smart meters installed were first-generation meters, also called SMETS1 meters. These have had a series of technical problems – particularly that they were prone to losing their smart capabilities if you switched energy provider.

However, in recent years energy companies have been fitting second-generation smart meters (SMETS2), which do not have these issues.