Will 2013 See Smart Meters Fail?

Smart meters were a big plank of the Coalition’s energy programme, back in 2010, when it wanted to be the “greenest government ever“. Now they resemble a white elephant looking for a graveyard.

Which is a shame, because a properly conceived scheme for smart meters really could make a difference to our energy consumption, without punishing industry, as too many other approaches to energy reduction end up doing.

Energy savings not so important?

Three years ago, the government was committed to reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent before  2020. Now, that goal looks impossible.

Renewable energy generation has not taken off as hoped – wind farms and feed in tariffs for home solar panels still need government subsidies and are finding those subsidies disappearing.

And efficiency measures which could reduce our energy use have had very little backing, since the then energy secretary, Chris Huhne, promised a “green deal” back in June 2010.  More than two years later, this promise to subsidise energy efficiency measures at home looks set to limp into action, as grants start being offered on 28 January.

The Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), which started as a scheme to reward organisations who reduced emissions, has turned into a green tax, which will be abolished “when finances allow”. The data centre industry is very concerned, however, that before it dies, the CRC may be able to cripple the UK’s data centre industry.

Data centre providers are campaigning (with the Intellect industry body) to avoid the CRC by setting up an alternative arrangement – called a Climate Change Agreement (CCA) – that lets the sector set its own targets. But this may simply be a jump from the frying pan into the fire, warns data centre efficiency expert Liam Newcombe of Romonet: “I know that some operators find the CRC and Climate Change Levy costs to be a substantial part of their operating margin but we need to consider the downsides as well,” he told me last year. “If a CCA is granted then data centres will become recognised by government as a sector which will then be measured and reported on. ”

Smart meters in the balance?

But this year should see the  start of the big roll-out of smart meters, devices which help consumers save energy by displaying in real-time what devices are using power in the house. The Smart Grid is supposed to reduce energy use, through a combination of feedback to consumers, and Big Data stats on the whole country’s energy usage, which can allow utilities to operate more effectively.

Unfortunately, although Huhne “accelerated” the roll-out, back in 2010, the UK still only has about 300 meters installed which meet the requirements of the scheme, according to Nick Hunn of Onzo, which offers Big Data analytics for utilities. Scottish Power has a pilot in Ipswich, and British Gas is promising to install them.

But every step of the way has been against the will of the utilities, and the whole system looks poorly specified according to Hunn. Must utility firms have back-end databases which are not up to the task of handling smart meter data usefully, so a lot of complexity is being put into the meters. This means they cost more, and that price will be paid by the consumer.

It is also just wrong:  a complex meter in someone’s house is difficult to upgrade, while a system designed to simply grab data and hand it to a powerful central database is much more future proof.

The specs for the project – the Smart Meter Equipment Technical Spricifications or SMETS – are still in draft form, and a complete version is needed by the end of this month. The specification uses a version of the ZigBee standard, instead of the more widely used Bluetooth standard, and the version of ZigBee has been tweaked heavily for SMETS, which doesn’t bode well for future-proofing and the cost of SMETS meters.

It’s got the makings of a public sector IT disaster, and one that won’t do a great deal to help customers – or the country – to cut energy and emissions.

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Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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