It’s great, unintentional timing to have an article about smart meters published in the middle of a heat wave. One of the justifications for putting smart meters in every home is that they manage demand, both by charging variable rates depending on time of day and also by turning down some appliances when demand is high. Doing this can dampen spikes in demand, stopping brownouts (a reduction in a local grid’s voltage) of the kind that have hit parts of the US during heatwaves.
The thing is, the main reason for US brownouts is the use of air conditioning. And as many people in Britain will be aware after the last fortnight, we don’t generally have air conditioning, at least not in homes (and although it has not felt like it during the last fortnight, we don’t really need it given our usual climate). This, I write in a piece on the subject for The Register published last Friday, is among the reasons why the UK government plan to put a smart meter in pretty much every home by 2020 may be flawed:
Firstly, many houses use gas for their big adjustable power needs, such as heating and cooking. Secondly, Britain’s clement climate keeps domestic power needs relatively low, whereas Norway (say) uses four times the electricity as Britain per person through heating, and Texas using five times due to air-conditioning.
There is also a privacy angle: smart meters will send data on your power usage rather more than the current ones, and will do so electronically (mostly through mobile networks, itself a point of complaint for some). If the data was real-time, it would give your power company and anyone it chose or was obliged to pass the data to a good idea of whether you were in and what you were doing, based on what electrical devices you had on. Turns out it’s not live – you can opt in to half-hourly data, which will anyway be batched up for transmission, and otherwise it will be monthly – and there won’t be a big database of everyone’s usage.
Dr Ross Anderson isn’t overly worried about the privacy angle… although in a case of damning with faint praise, he told me: “There are many other systems whose privacy aspects worry me more. The main problem about smart metering is that it won’t save energy and so it’s a colossal waste of money.”
On the scale of questionable government IT projects, smart meters come nowhere near the level of David Miliband’s carbon credit card. But even so, I think there are reasons to question this one.