By 2020 the EU says every home in Ireland should have a Smart Meter. Are these meters really Smart? Could you save money with a Smart Meter? We'll take a look at what you can expect, what they can really do and what some of the fears of Smart Meters actually are.
Stephen Fry is on the telly every day, he’s got about a zillion followers on Twitter, and if you’re of a certain vintage you might remember he once had a show called A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
One of the best gags on that show was a mock vox pop in which Stephen Fry dressed in drag gives his (her?) opinion on the street. In one of the funniest, he suddenly stops mid-flow, puts his hand to his face and gasps: “Oh Chr*st I’ve left the iron on!”
Everyone’s had that moment. Haven’t we all heard the one about the guy who used the sky-phone on a Jumbo Jet to call the ESB to send someone to his house to turn off his electricity because he’d left the oven on…?
At times like these, wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could just whip out your mobile and turn off your power with an app? Or turn off the plugs downstairs? Or be able to tell if something like the iron was on by checking your real-time consumption on your phone? Surely in the age of the Smart Phone and the Smart Meter, something as simple as that should be possible, right?
Well, Smart Meters aren’t specifically designed do stuff like that, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t. Here’s a thought… one of the biggest concerns people have about Smart Meters is that energy companies could remotely disconnect them without having to send someone out to their house. It’s a reasonable concern too, because they actually they could do it! But why can’t a feature like that be something that customers could use too?
We do all need to start thinking a bit more about Smart Meters though, because pretty soon we’re all going to have one. The EU has said that 80% of households should have a Smart Meter by 2020 and the Commission for Energy Regulation is currently well into its program to make that happen in Ireland. So what can you expect from a Smart Meter?
SMART METERS VS DUMB METERS. ARE THEY REALLY SMART?
The big difference between Smart Meters and “dumb” meters is that Smart Meters can give you real time consumption information. This can be beamed to an “in home display”, or to your phone or tablet, and it can tell you in actual money terms what you’re using right now. The thinking here is that if you know more about your consumption, you’ll use less energy and save yourself some money. You’ll also be able to see reports of your usage by week, month and year. And this is one of the major selling points for Smart Meters.
Smart Meters will also be able to send your consumption and your meter readings to your supplier, so you’ll never have another estimated bill.
Another thing that they will be able to do is introduce “Time of Use” tariffs. These can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Basically, they’ll work by charging more at peak times, less during the day and less again overnight. The idea being that you’ll take it easy on the juice when you come home from work because it’ll cost more. And you’ll start running your washer and dryer overnight because it’s cheaper.
Smart Meters will also allow you to easily change from receiving normal bills, to prepaying for your energy - without the need for a new meter. They should also allow you to change tariff or supplier more easily too.
ARE THERE BENEFITS FOR THE ENERGY SUPPLIERS TOO?
In a word, yes. Smart Meters have a number of benefits for energy suppliers. When coupled with the “Smart Grid” (which I’m not going to go into here), they should make energy operation more efficient by smoothing out demand. They’ll help energy suppliers locate faults quickly. They’ll remove the need for meter readers. They should also help increase the amount of renewable energy used by Irish consumers.
A big concern for everyone involved in the program though is getting Smart Meters installed with the buy-in of the public. And it hasn’t been smooth sailing in other jurisdictions.
At a Smart Metering conference this week and one of the speakers said that in California the public had hit the streets with their pitchforks because they were so unhappy about Smart Meters. He reckoned that the protests happened because the people weren’t fully informed or properly consulted about the Smart Meter installations, and all sorts of information started to circulate which made people mad. It didn’t help that California’s big utility PG&E said anyone who didn’t allow a Smart Meter to be installed would have to pay them an extra tenner a month. Pitchfork anyone?
SO WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED ABOUT SMART METERS?
There are concerns that Smart Meters pose a health risk because they transmit microwave radiation that you can’t turn off. There are privacy concerns around the data that suppliers may collect from Smart Meters. Then there is the cost of installation, and worries that Smart Meters may actually cost consumers more rather than less because of the Time of Use tariffs.
WILL YOU REALLY SAVE MONEY WITH A SMART METER?
Probably. Smart Metering trials took place in Ireland between 2009 and 2010 and gave electricity Smart Meters to 5,000 homes and businesses. Overall, electricity consumption reduced by 2.5%. Peak time consumption reduced by 8.8%. The biggest savings were realised by households on Time of Use tariffs that also had in-home displays. The results were largely consistent with trials in other countries.
So, based on current electricity prices, you could save around €2.50 per month. It doesn’t sound like much, but real savings will be based on how the tariffs are actually structured and whether people really take advantage of the additional information they receive from their Smart Meters.
WHO WILL PAY FOR SMART METERS?
That’s the €1 billon question. In the UK, where the Smart Meter rollout is currently underway, the cost is around £215 per household. If the cost is the same in Ireland, it could mean around €300 per household. ESB Networks will likely be responsible for installing the electricity Smart Meters and the cost will probably be passed on in some way or another.
Ultimately, the Commission for Energy Regulation will probably decide how the cost is passed on. If households are required to absorb the entire cost (say over a ten year period) it could mean an extra €30 per year on bills which would match the average savings of having a Smart Meter in the first place.
So basically, having a Smart Meter could make very little difference to you in terms of cost unless you significantly change your behaviour, use the consumption information, and actively take advantage of the Time of Use tariffs.
IF I HAVE A SMART METER, WILL SUPPLIERS BE ABLE TO CUT ME OFF REMOTELY?
Probably. The meter itself will be able to do it, and anyone with a pay as you go meter can tell you that they get cut off when the credit runs out without anyone coming to their house. It will really depend on what regulations are put in place once the Smart Meter rollout starts.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT TIME OF USE TARIFFS
Ok, let’s say peak electricity time is 5pm to 7pm. A Time of Use tariff will probably charge the most at that time to encourage people to use less during those hours. How much less you need to use to break even depends on how much extra is charged.
So imagine you normally pay 15c per unit for electricity, and at peak time a unit costs 20c. You’d need to reduce your consumption by a quarter or 25% just to break even at peak time. This will take a big change in behaviour. However it is likely that overnight rates and off peak daytime rates will be substantially cheaper, so you could save that way instead. A bit like having a NightSaver meter really.
WHAT ABOUT PRIVACY? HOW MUCH INFOMATION WILL MY SMART METER SEND TO MY SUPPLIER?
It is unlikely that anything more than household consumption will be sent to suppliers. However this is still sensitive information so the CER has proposed a data access and privacy framework which it will start consulting on within the next few years.
ARE SMART METERS WORTH IT?
The Smart Metering program has great potential and could benefit everyone in Ireland. It could help us to make the most of our renewable energy, enable micro-generation, and even help facilitate energy storage for individual homes. It could also help us reduce our imported gas and oil bills.
I particularly love the electricity storage idea. Sure, it’s a long way from being accessible to normal households, but it could be in a few years…
Tesla founder Elon Musk launched the Powerwall home storage unit last month and the basic one can store 10kWh of electricity. That’s almost enough for an average home for one day. If you have a Powerwall in your house, you could store up electricity at night when it’s cheap and us it during peak time so you don’t pay high Time of Use prices.
The Powerwall is way too expensive right now, but imagine if the price fell by two thirds by the 2020 and the government offered grants to install one? Suddenly it becomes feasible. Then we really could take advantage of all that West of Ireland wind blowing through the turbines while we sleep!
In the meantime, you can always save a few quid on your electricity and gas the bonkers.ie way and make sure you're on the cheapest deal.