Smart meters are not very smart

01 Apr 2015

As featured in DisruptiveViews

Smart meters were some of the earliest devices heralding the Internet of Things (IoT) era – but have they lived up to expectations? Apparently not! And as we move headlong into an Internet of Things (IoT) world, perhaps we should be a little more cautious, if early IoT history is any indication.

Smart meters have been around for a long time. I remember working on a project in New Zealand, the first fully deregulated energy market in the world, back in the mid 90s. A small local technology company, Exicom, had come up with a digital ‘smart meter’ that tracked electricity usage and displayed the status of the bill in dollars on a small LCD screen.

That was the selling point for consumers but behind the little screen were plans to monitor power consumption continuously to better manage power generation – the most expensive component – and be able to offer consumers variable pricing depending on loads at any time and save having to read meters manually.

The concept was brilliant in its simplicity and generous in the benefits smart metering would bring everyone. But since those promising beginnings something appears to have gone terribly wrong.

The other big selling point was that smart meters would be at the forefront of modernization of the electric power grid, called the ‘smart grid’ by its proponents. Efforts such as the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), Automated Meter Reading (AMR) and the other phases of intelligent grid management were all part of a smarter grid. Having better control of the power grid was supposed to improve its reliability and efficiency. And, as applications were developed for end users, point-of-use monitoring, control of power usage and generation would benefit utilities by reducing peak loads while benefitting consumers by providing a way to save on their energy costs.

Nowadays, despite all these positives and the rollout of many millions of smart meters worldwide it is hard to find tangible examples that any, let alone all, of these goals have been met. In fact, there appears to be massive backlash against smart meters, not only because of their cost to implement, lack of return on investment and infringement of privacy, but also because of safety issues. None of which were imagined when they were first introduced.

A search for ‘smart meters’ on Google will return a plethora of negative news and the names of organisations established to stop their rollout and even ban them altogether. Their gripes range from health concerns from electro magnetic emissions, homes catching fire and privacy breaches to the worst sin of all – inaccurate bills! In fact it is difficult to find anything positive about smart meters that is not coming from government authorities, utilities and meter manufacturers!

For example, Canada’s National Post reported that Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority recently ordered local hydro companies to remove 5,400 smart meters because they posed a safety risk. The administrative body that acts on behalf of the Ontario government carried out a “due diligence safety review” of the province’s smart meters after Saskatchewan removed 105,000 Sensus Corp. smart meters following a series of fires last summer.

The UK Daily Mail reported that, “Intelligence chiefs have warned that plans to install smart energy meters in every house will leave families vulnerable to terrorist attacks. According to the Government’s listening agency GCHQ, the plans will create a ‘strategic vulnerability,’ giving foreign computer hackers the opportunity to target individual homes, municipal buildings and even whole districts. Described by security experts as the ‘modern day equivalent of a nuclear strike’, hackers would be able to switch off meters from overseas, cutting off targets from the national grid.”

The article goes on to point out that, the “Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) plans to create a centralised government-controlled database to collect smart meter data and that big publicly-funded software projects don’t have a very reassuring track record with only around 30% of such schemes actually succeeding – that’s compared to a 70% success rate in the private sector.” Unless taken seriously, these concerns could cause a much bigger, more expensive headache for the government than any we’re likely to experience from exposure to smart meters’ electromagnetic fields.

A report from the Institute of Directors (IoD) says the UK government’s program to install smart meters is a huge, costly mistake and should be halted or abandoned altogether.

That brings us to that provides educational and scientific information to the public about health effects and other problems related to wireless smart meter radiation, which causes everything from insomnia and nightmares to cancer and the destruction of nature from ‘electrosmog.’

However, of all the issues with smart meters none hits home, or the back pocket, more than billing issues. Simply typing ‘smart meter billing problems’ into your search engine will return a staggering amount of stories about inaccurate, and usually abnormally high, bills.

Of course, many of the billing issues can be simply put down to archaic legacy systems that worked with one meter reading a month to being inundated with many millions per hour. Like telcos, utilities have had to transform their back-office as well, albeit a little more slowly.

From conspiracy theories, to collusion between meter-makers and utilities and down to systemic smart meter billing errors over 200% – the stories are almost all negative. Gone are the days when the old spinning meter was read by a human being and everyone trusted their utility company (mainly because it was a government entity and you had no choice).

Can anybody provide us with proof that smart meters have brought any of the purported benefits we were so easily led to believe? Has anybody seen a dramatic increase in their energy bills? Have power generation costs dropped because of smart grid rollouts? Have any consumers been offered dynamic pricing and informed when cheap power is available? Have any utilities introduced appliance management via their smart meters to automatically turn them on or off depending on grid loads? Does anybody with a smart meter honestly believe their bills are more accurate than before? Let us know, please!

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