Smart Meters: The Future of Energy or a Technological Misstep?

31-10-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Smart meters were touted as the solution to energy bean counting, and while there have certainly been some success stories, a new report has discovered that as many as 7 million smart meters will fail when older cellular networks are shut down. What exactly will this situation lead to, why does this demonstrate the dangers of poor engineering when relying on short-lived technologies, and how can engineers rectify such mistakes going forward?

What exactly will this smart meter situation lead to?

It is no secret that I personally detest smart meters, not because they are able to track energy usage in real time, but because they are given the label “smart” when they are anything but provide little benefit to the end-user and cannot be used to provide reliable energy savings by reducing consumption during peak usage (having said that, this is more of a fault with energy providers). To add to the rage, many energy consumers are finding that energy companies have installed smart meters against their knowledge, or worse, find that their smart meters fail in a spectacular way, charging users thousands of pounds in energy usage that was never actually used.  

The Financial Implications and Consumer Concerns

The financial burden of the smart meter failures is not to be underestimated. With a staggering seven million meters on the brink of obsolescence due to the phasing out of 2G and 3G networks, the costs associated with hardware upgrades are set to soar. The recent government report underscores that these costs will, unfortunately, fall on the consumers. This raises pressing concerns about the transparency and equity of the entire smart meter initiative, and whether consumers were adequately informed about potential future costs when the meters were first introduced.

However, if future smart meters can be connected to smart home systems, provide better energy rates, and introduce real intelligence into the energy consumption industry, then they have an immense capacity to do well. Of course, future smart meters will need to utilise different technologies than those currently in use, and all consumers will periodically need to get their meters updated.

It is this need to upgrade hardware where many smart meter users are facing issues. A recent report from a government comity has found that of all the smart meters installed, around 9% are not functioning correctly, and around 7 million will stop working altogether when cellular network operators begin phasing out 2G and 3G.

When these meters stop working, the cost to replace such hardware will ultimately fall onto consumers, who have essentially been forced to utilise the meters with no option to revert back to older analogue systems, which merely require a reading once a month (and can operate indefinitely). Even if Ofgem were to introduce fines to companies that try to offload these charges to consumers, these costs could be recuperated through gradual increases in energy prices.

To make matters worse, most of these smart meter systems lack the ability to utilise software upgrades to keep them working. If future systems are designed to operate on 4G, it is possible that they, too, will eventually need to be upgraded as future networks dominate the space.

The Potential and Challenges of Smart Meters

Smart meters are instrumental in advancing the world towards a connected future, emphasizing smart energy management and consumption. Utility companies, recognizing the potential of IoT and concepts like the smart factory, are gearing up to deploy millions of these meters. Their goal is to aid both industrial and residential users in managing their electricity consumption more efficiently, ultimately leading to reduced energy costs.

Several IoT manufacturers are now producing interoperable smart energy products. These products are designed to monitor, control, report, and automate the delivery and usage of energy. By connecting to a smart grid, they provide the necessary information and automation support. This not only benefits the end-users but also helps energy providers to match their demand-supply needs more accurately and introduce runtime customizations for enhanced value.

The value additions of smart meters are numerous:

  • Automated and streamlined meter readings, leading to significant time and effort savings.
  • Accurate, timely, and variable usage-based billing.
  • Enhanced handling of events such as outages, tampering, theft, and errors.
  • Reduced back office rebilling.
  • Improved transformer load management.
  • Increased employee safety and better incident management.

However, despite the clear advantages, there are concerns related to the accuracy, security, and integrity of these meters, especially in managing RF emissions. Ensuring the right level of accuracy, safety, and security, while adhering to national standards and local requirements, is crucial for their proper and secure operation.

The success of smart meter projects largely hinges on the precision of operations during project planning, deployment, and maintenance. It's imperative to develop the business and technical requirements of an end system meticulously. This involves a robust technology selection process, ensuring reduced outages while supporting new systems, and planning for operations and maintenance.

Security and integrity are paramount for utility companies and vendors. Emphasis is placed on incorporating the right security measures for data validation, privacy, encryption, access control, and error checking. Moreover, there's a pressing need for safe and appropriate installation plans and processes.

With technologically advanced smart meters, energy providers have managed to significantly reduce manual meter readings. This has enabled a more integrated, accurate, and faster solution, which can transmit data to the cloud for further analysis. This data-driven approach aids in dynamic price controls based on usage, understanding usage patterns, and assisting in informed business decision-making.

How does this demonstrate the dangers of poor engineering?

While the eventual closure of 2G and 3G cannot be blamed on the engineers designing smart meters, the fact that a large proportion of critical infrastructure can suddenly become outmoded does demonstrate a serious issue with modern designs. But this is by no means the first case of large-scale hardware issues when faced with upgrading technology, as most electronic applications eventually suffer from this phenomenon.

One such example of where rapid changes in technology resulted in major issues with obsolesce was (and still is) the PC market. A machine bought in one year can quickly find itself outmoded in a matter of years, and while some hardware upgrades can be made to keep the machine practically usable, in other cases, even hardware upgrades cannot solve the issue (as was the case with the introducing of Windows 11 requiring secure boot platforms which many machines lack).

Planned Obsolescence and its Implications

But the speed at which technology changes isn’t the only contributing factor to obsolescence; planned obsolescence also plagues millions of designs currently in active use. Simply put, by integrating short-lived components into devices (such as leaky capacitors), it becomes possible to break hardware after a few years, and because modern technology is highly dependent on surface mount parts, trying to repair devices is often too expensive, forcing consumers to purchase new devices.

In some extreme cases, engineers will even go as far as to incorporate software obsolescence that prevents users from receiving software updates, utilise their hardware fully, or even brick devices so that they no longer work. For example, Hive recently decided to cut support for their range of IoT security devices, which effectively bricked users relying on that product range.

But what dangers does this type of poor engineering lead to? Undoubtedly, the cost to replace hardware fundamentally falls on the consumer, something which the law doesn’t currently forbid, but this forced obsolesce also cripples infrastructure and makes it harder to implement long-term decisions when integrating electronics into applications. This mindset also hurts public trust in technology, which itself could lead to stagnation in implementation, and this has already been seen with smart meters, with many consumers refusing to switch over. 

The adoption of smart meters across Great Britain paints a varied picture. Geographic disparities, with lower installation rates in areas like London and more remote regions, highlight the challenges faced in ensuring uniform adoption. Factors such as communication technology limitations play a role, but there's also a pressing need for energy suppliers to adopt strategies tailored to these unique challenges. Furthermore, Smart Energy GB's data reveals a concerning trend: certain demographic groups, including the young, females, and those on low incomes, lag behind in smart meter adoption. This underscores the need for targeted outreach and education to ensure that the benefits of smart meters are accessible to all.

How can these issues be rectified going forward?

Trying to fix the obsolescence of hardware is by no means a trivial task as, fundamentally, obsolescence is a result of an engineer’s design, and expecting an engineer to change their design practices via government regulation is a giant red flag for innovation. Any law that mandates devices work for x number of years could help consumers buy with confidence, but it could also see millions of devices unable to handle modern threats forced into active use (this is one of the major reasons why IoT sensors need to be replaced after a few years). 

But for engineers who want to help win the fight against obsolescence, by far, the first and most important step is to integrate the ability to perform software updates. By providing users with the ability to update software and firmware, devices can be provided with security patches that ensure protection against the latest threats. 

On the side of the hardware, engineers can also consider modular designs that allow users to replace modules as needed. For example, in the case of smart meters, the mobile connectivity side of the design should be integrated into a module that can be replaced when newer network technologies become available. 

Overall, there are numerous options available to engineers when it comes to fighting against obsolescence, but if engineers don’t act now, it may not be long before governments have to step in with the goal of protecting consumers, eventually targeting engineers and potentially stifling innovation. 

The challenges faced by the smart meter initiative in Great Britain serve as a valuable lesson for future technological rollouts. As we transition to a more sustainable and tech-driven future, it's imperative to ensure that such initiatives are not only technologically sound but also transparent, equitable, and consumer-centric. The smart meter situation underscores the importance of long-term planning, consumer education, and robust technological infrastructure. As the energy landscape evolves, a proactive and informed approach will be key to navigating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.


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.