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.BBC
The following is excerpted from Denierland:
Here are some pros and cons of smart meters.
|Potential savings of energy||Badged as free, but expensive (paid for by bill payers whether they want one or not)|
|Potentially eliminating the need for meter readers||Monitoring electricity use; data potentially hackable|
|Enabling the use of TOUTs to throttle demand||Enabling 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.
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.