From the BBC, and the “sceptics told you this was going to happen” department, comes the news that, thanks to the ability for energy companies to switch smart meters into “prepayment” mode, vulnerable people have been cut off by unaccountable faceless minions.

Ofgem said it was concerned about reports that some vulnerable customers were being switched to prepayment meters without full regard to their situation. “In extreme cases reports we received suggested this had led to some vulnerable customers being left without power for days or even weeks,” a spokesperson said.


The following is excerpted from Denierland:

Here are some pros and cons of smart meters.

Potential savings of energyBadged as free, but expensive (paid for by bill payers whether they want one or not)
Potentially eliminating the need for meter readersMonitoring electricity use; data potentially hackable
Enabling the use of TOUTs to throttle demandEnabling the use of TOUTs to increase cost when demand is high

Potential for remote disconnection for non-payment of bill

Potential for remote disconnection when grid under pressure

Unreliable: failures when switching suppliers

Smart meters are supposed to save consumers money. We are supposed to look at their in-house display, see energy use, and run around switching lights off or something. In fact, these gadgets are expensive and their benefits are tenuous at best. In the UK, the first three economic assessments were negative, then in 2009 came a positive one with a net benefit of a paltry (and yet optimistic) £3.6 billion (Henney & Anderson, 2012). Evidence shows that few people use their in-house displays to reduce their energy use, hence the low savings identified by the BBC headline:

Smart meters to cut energy bills by just £11, say MPs

BBC, 21 July 2018

Who benefits, if not the consumer? Why, the energy company, because it doesn’t have to send a meter reader round every quarter (smart meters will still have to be physically checked, I think annually). This accounts for half of the supposed saving from these devices (it assumes the supplier will pass it on, via price competition in the market). Meanwhile, every household is paying (I have seen a figure of about £400) towards smart meters – and if the annual saving resulting is £11, it’s going to take far more than the lifetime of the devices to pay for them.

Dial-up internet access, VHS and rotary phones are quite rightly consigned to history, and now we can order anything at a click of a button and can stream Netflix from your [sic] smart TV while booking our next holiday on your smart phone.”

Claire Perry, Minister for Energy & Clean Growth, 23 November 2018, in response to a critical National Audit Office report, having apparently hacked someone else’s phone and used it to book her family’s next holiday.

But we ditched our VHSs because something better came along – DVD players – which consumers chose and paid for themselves, not because government mandated it. (DVD players are themselves now largely obsolete thanks to streaming services.)

At the moment, we are all paying for smart meters, whether we have one installed or not, through our bills. (That is, people who don’t want one are contributing to the cost of those who do.) We’ve also paid for a series of expensive and annoying adverts, including one that got those responsible ticked off by the Advertising Standards Agency for saying the meters were “free.” (Instead they should have said, “You’re paying for it anyway, so why not get one!”)

The Minister, Claire Perry, thought it was baffling that anyone would want to “grab a torch, sweep away cobwebs and hunker down under the stairs to get readings from our ancient, dusty electricity and gas meters.” Well, she’s got a point. It’s so difficult to read the meter once a quarter that I really don’t know how I manage it, and ought to be given an award. Maybe a subsidy. I mean, I push past the perilous cobwebs four times a year, etc.

So, on the one hand we have the quarterly battle with cobwebs and terrified arachnids. On the other, we have the benefits of smart meters. What are they then? Well, not only do you not have to go into the Dark Place once every season, you also have a handy device that tells you how much energy you’re using.

The fact that your data is sent to your supplier every half hour means that Time Of Use Tariffs are set to come into play, so that you will pay more for electricity when you need it, and less when you don’t. If the idea of your neighbour putting the washing machine on at 3 a.m. to take advantage of this scheme appeals to you, you may benefit from this service. Practice has shown that unless peak prices are punishingly high, people largely do not switch their energy use (luckily for those of us with neighbours who have poorly-balanced washing machines). But if such punishing variability does come in (e.g. 7-fold variation between the cheapest half-hourly rate and the most expensive), demand might shift… and as a corollary, investing in home batteries might become economical (as well as a fire hazard…).

What else does a smart meter offer us…? Well, a remote off switch for a start, so that if you don’t pay your bill, you can be safely disconnected without the supplier having to send someone out to do it in person, with attendant risk to life and limb if you disagree with their plan. After that, you’ll be able to pre-pay for your energy at the corner shop.

Because of dubious security, there are privacy concerns, with energy use monitoring being able to tell whether anyone is in the house. There is also the threat that malign actors will be able to send commands to meters and permanently kill them.

Overall, I think the case for smart meters is appallingly weak, except in circumstances when energy costs are extortionate. Hang on, maybe they will come in handy after all…

Final point. If you want to know how much electricity you are using for budgeting, devices are available to provide such data without wiring or sending information to your supplier or leaving you open to remote disconnection or TOUTs.

[Excerpt ends.]

Now that “smart” meter penetration is high, and energy bills are stratospheric, there is obviously far more people vulnerable to being remotely moved onto a prepayment plan, which is naturally a gnat’s whisker away from the potential for a lengthy period without power. For why enforce the need for credit, if you aren’t going to cut the power when it reaches zero?

This leads to the likelihood that vulnerable people will be cut off. Sure, there are supposed to be safeguards. But 14 million smart meters are supplying a lot of people who don’t have much money and end up in debt. Of that number, quite a few meet the definition of vulnerable. I would hope that energy companies will make damned sure that their victims are not vulnerable people. However, I very much fear that it will be a case of disconnection by algorithm.


  1. “….thanks to the ability for energy companies to switch smart meters into “prepayment” mode, vulnerable people have been cut off by unaccountable faceless minions.”

    I can think only* of gas, electricity & water suppliers who are *obliged to continue* to supply their products to those who haven’t paid for previous consignments.

    In the above story, Smart Meters aren’t ‘cutting off’ supplies, they’re merely ensuring that products are paid for.

    Every other business in the land can choose to offer credit to their customers, but no one else is obliged to continue to supply on credit, further consignments.

    We mustn’t forget that the costs of the value of bills defaulted are paid for by every other commodity consumer who does pay their bills on time.

    [*The BBC cannot prevent those who refuse to pay the Telly Tax from accessing broadcast TV, but it is not supplying a tangible commodity.]


  2. Joe, naturally the cost of defaults are socialised. And I’m not suggesting that people should get free electricity here.

    The key issue is that there is potential for (and anecdotal evidence of) vulnerable adults being disconnected from afar. The quote I excerpted from the BBC story said that vulnerable customers were left without power for “days or even weeks.” There are no circumstances where that should be allowed to happen. With the assumption that Ofgem knows what a vulnerable adult is, there is really no wriggle room: this is a big fat NO in a civilised country. Such disconnections could have serious consequences.

    A side issue I wanted to highlight was Claire Perry’s ridiculous sales pitch (where is she now?). She did not try to sell smart meters on the basis that “it will make it easier for power companies to cut you off if you don’t keep up with the bills.” She tried to sell them on the basis of the avoidance of cobwebs.

    Finally, no doubt some proportion of those who are now in arrears have not been in arrears before the latest “skyrocket” in energy prices. Some of the blame for the non-payment sits firmly in the politicians’ corner. Still, what can we do? We get the government we deserve. Always have done and always will.


  3. Joe and Jit,

    Joe makes a valid point, of course, but Jit’s response is along the lines of the response I would have made had Jit not beaten me to it. The “sales pitch” to try to persuade us all to sign up to smart meters was seriously dishonest, IMO, since the touted benefits were miniscule, and were massively outweighed by the financial cost (I’ve seen a figure of £18Bn mentioned – which would be around £650 per household – though I can’t vouchsafe it). And, as Jit says, when we were urged to get smart meters, no part of the sales pitch said that an advantage to consumers was the ability of power companies to cut consumers off more easily!

    Of course, the real reason why smart meters were deemed to be essential was – as we sceptics averred all along – because their mass roll-out would greatly facilitate power rationing, time of usage tariffs etc. In other words, they already knew that they were destroying energy security within the system, and smart meters were the response designed to enable them to try to control that failure.

    That – to me at least – is self-evident. It is an entirely destructive response to our need for energy security (and for reasonable price levels) yet they ploughed ahead regardless. Sometimes I can’t help wondering why UK politicians seem to hate the British public so much.


  4. “The key issue is that there is potential for (and anecdotal evidence of) vulnerable adults being disconnected from afar.”

    Genuine question: Has any vulnerable adult actually been disconnected via a Smart Meter? The BBC article’s wording is very coy.

    “Suppliers can use the technology to swap customers onto a payment method that is often more expensive without their permission.”

    If a consumer is in arrears above a previously agreed/stated limit, then that consumer has lost any to right of withhold ‘permission’ to be switched to a pre-payment arrangement. Note: If a customer for whatever reason fails to then pre-pay (NB – there will still be relatively large arrears!), they are not ‘cut-off’, they themselves have voluntarily chosen to not buy.

    “Ofgem said some had been left without power for days or even weeks, and a trade body said “mistakes” were made.”

    There may well have been some mistakes made by suppliers (they’re staffed by humans), but here is also a distinct possibility some consumers may have prioritised spending their disposable income on (say) TV subscription service(s), mobile phone remt/hire/data-top-ups etc. That’s their choice, but they have no right to then expect the rest of us to pck up their tab.

    “Samantha Pierre-Joseph, from North London, only realised her meter had been switched when she noticed the meter display flashing in her kitchen.
    Her new provider told Samantha she was in arrears of over £1,600, an amount she disputes because she monitored her usage closely using her smart meter. But suddenly it was switched.
    “I literally just came in from shopping and realised I had been switched onto a prepayment meter with no notice,” the mother-of-one told the BBC. “It’s shocking.” ”

    My guess (yup – only a guess) is that during her admitted disputes-process, warnings were given that failure to reduce the debt would have consequences. Yes, consumption-quantity* disputes arise for many reasons, but heck – £1,600 buys a heck of a lot of electricity (pre-recent price hikes) spread over years for say a 4-bed detached home.

    *My assumption, but even the tariff-price-applied variable would be small.

    Simply electronically changing a Smart Meter’s operation from ‘Credit’ to ‘Pre-payment’ does not ‘cut-off’ a consumer.

    Perhaps the BBC should have sent a competent reporter to at least try to assess reality, rather than maybe search for a ‘victim’* who coincidentally boasts of having a 1st Class Honours Degree in Psychology . But then that wouldn’t satisfy the Beeb’s agenda.

    *Yes Samantha may have a vaild dispute, but surely even those with a 1st Class Honours Degree are not normally innumerate.


  5. Hi Mark

    “And, as Jit says, when we were urged to get smart meters, no part of the sales pitch said that an advantage to consumers was the ability of power companies to cut consumers off more easily!”

    That’s not the case.

    Power companies must jump through many hoops before *they’re* permitted to physically cut-off a consumer’s supply.

    If a customer has racked-up a (relatively large) debt, and continues to increase that debt by consuming more of their product, what other sanction is available other than force them to pre-pay for future supplies?

    PP tariffs are more expensive to administer than credit tariffs because they cost a lot more to administer.

    If energy companies didn’t recover those extra costs from those who cause them, they’d have to penalise those with a good credit rating.


  6. Moving someone onto pre-payment could, if misapplied, have the same effect as disconnection. If they have not got any funds to feed the meter, they won’t have any power.
    So this facility could leave the customer without access to power without the supplier having to jump through all the hoops which are there to protect the vulnerable.
    While it may stop the feckless from running up bills irresponsibly, I fear it will catch some unfortunates who, under the old system, would have been protected from disconnection.


  7. Joe – thanks for the link to ““Samantha Pierre-Joseph, from North London,”

    the BEEB seem to love certain people’s complaints without questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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