When Smart technology isn’t smart – Smart Meters

22-11-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Smart meters are supposed to save customers energy and help customers make informed decisions about their energy usage. However, the truth behind smart meters is that they are far from energy-saving devices and instead just another way for utility companies to have more control over your supply.


What are smart meters?


The past decade has seen utility companies and the government push homeowners replace their antiquated meters with new smart meters. The idea behind the smart meter is that it will help users save energy, reduce overall CO2 production, and improve network stability. Utility companies also boast that smart meters will give users control of their energy usage, save them plenty of time, and help users make informed decisions. But what exactly is a smart meter?

Simply put, a smart meter is a device that combines a meter with IoT to create a meter that can be accessed over the internet. Such a device allows utility companies to instantly take readings while allowing homeowners to see their current usage on dedicated displays, phone apps, or through any browser.

The data gathered from smart meters can then be used to produce graph and utility usage over days and months, show users how much they are paying, and even help users understand why their bill is as much as it is. For example, many energy companies offer cheaper tariffs during the night, and homeowners can take advantage of this by maximising their energy usage during this time.


Why are they not as smart as they are made out to be?


Despite their name, it turns out that smart meters are not as smart as one would think, and their introduction may be more sinister than helpful.

Many homeowners have historically done their own meter readings, which are then submitted to the utility company. This means that users have always had access to their energy usage, and the payments made to utility companies will often tell users how much energy they are using.

However, the real problem with smart meters is that they do not act on the data that they gather to help customers save money. Because energy is needed when it is needed, a smart meter cannot turn appliances on and off to try and optimise energy usage. If a user wants to heat their house at 8 AM because it is extremely cold, the energy price will not matter, and the user will take all the energy they need until their home is warm.

Having tabulated data can be helpful to customers, but unless customers understand where their energy is being used in the home, no amount of pretty graphs will help users. One area of concern that smart meters introduce is their ability to be remotely controlled by utility companies. At first, this would sound advantageous to utility companies whose customers refuse to pay a bill; power and water can be disconnected until payment is made. However, this implies that a remote connection can be made to the meter, which could lead to potential hacking from cybercriminals who want to cause interference. Furthermore, disgruntled employees could very quickly turn off utilities to houses that have done nothing wrong, which could lead to loss of life in homes with life-support equipment.

How would a real smart meter operate?


A real smart meter would gather data on utility usage, process this data with advanced algorithms, and then make decisions that help the homeowner save money. A classic example would be a smart meter connected to a battery unit that can be charged and discharged depending on current energy tariffs. The battery would be charged by the smart meter during low-tariff times, and high-tariff times would see the battery discharged into the home supply.

A smart meter could also coordinate with renewable energy systems to better use solar and wind energy sources. The tariff rates could be compared to the current renewable energy production and energy usage to best decide how to route each power source.

Another task that a smart meter could perform is informing users in the home of the best times to complete energy-intensive tasks. For example, a smart meter could detect that users are not using hot water during the day and remove power to the hot cylinder. But, this could be combined with an education system whereby occupants are informed by the system that changing their shower time to coincide with the lower tariff period could save money.

Overall, smart meters could be made to do so much more, and calling them “smart” is disgraceful to devices that actually are smart.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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