We’re accustomed to traditional metering devices designed to record energy (water, gas or electricity) consumption. Smart meters take things a few steps further by sending this data back to the utility for billing and system maintenance over the network.
Smart meters should also enable customers to monitor and manage energy consumption while enabling them to more easily identify alternative suppliers. There are some hiccups – a recent one-year study by Toronto Hydro showed that following smart meter installation, 80% of people’s bills increased – often by more than 50%. Though participants in a UK Ofgem trial reported savings of around 3 percent.
What is a smart meter?
There’s no standard smart meter, but in most cases these replace existing meters with a more intelligent box with a display. They use low power radio frequency signals to collect and transmit information about energy use.
The display lets you and your utility provider monitor your energy useage, helping you control use and enabling your provider to charge more accurately. It is not necessary for consumers to have their own broadband connection for the smart meter to work, though providers need to be able to get the meter online, and may sometimes provide their own radio transceivers (similar to a wireless router).
Smart meters are being deployed internationally. More than 700 million meters are expected to be deployed by 2020 with governments worldwide pushing utility providers to install them. For example, European member states must have smart meters installed in 80 percent of homes by 2020.
Most utilities embed SIM cards inside meters so they can share their data over existing GSM networks. In some deployments, the meters operate within a wireless mesh network, sharing data together with neighboring meters over a Wide Area Network (WAN). Meter transceivers typically operate in the 902–928 MHz and 2.4-2.48 GHz bands. In the UK the new utility network will come from the Data and Communications Company (DCC), a private company owned by Capita.
Inside the home, meters use ZigBee, Z-wave or Wi-Fi. In some cases this enables other kinds of energy-related service provision, such as smart home management and monitoring.
In most cases the meters operate at a peak power of 1W, however they are only active for short periods so the power demands of these meters should be low.
Innovation is intensifying in this sector, and the devices providers are installing may not support the standards and network protocols required tomorrow.
This kind of built-in-obsolescence is attractive to tech firms engaged in offering solutions to the consumer market, but it’s a big challenge when engaging in costly infrastructure projects. Smart meter infrastructure needs to last for years.
"The pace of technological innovation may well leave the current generation of meters behind and leave consumers in a cycle of installation, de-installation and re-installation," warned the UK Institute of Directors. No one, government or private utility, wants to spend billions (an estimated £11 billion in the UK alone) on smart meter deployments today only to need to replace all those units in a few years time, because better technology appears.
In the UK, utilities are under no pressure to ensure their meters are even compatible with competing company systems, meaning customers switching supplier may end up with a dumber meter than they one they’ve already got.
Lack of standardization
Standardization is another problem, particularly given international moves to create competitive energy marketplaces.
In the UK there are glaring questions around standardization of the technology, even MPs on the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Committee have warned against allowing energy companies freedom to choose their own smart meter solution, rather than adopting an industry-wide approach. Even energy utilities want government to enable industry wide solutions.
Claire Maugham, director of communications at smart meter advocacy group Smart Energy GB told BBC the rollout needed more independent oversight and consumers will need more education on using their smart meters.
Meanwhile we see a multiplicity of smart meter designs and some proliferation in the number of available connectivity solutions from a variety of providers.
Hacked smart meters cost electricity companies $400 million in lost revenue in Puerto Rico in 2010, but it’s not just utility companies that could fall victim to hacks and criminal attacks.
Stealing thousands of people’s credit card details, hackers last year broke into Target’s computer systems using a remote access system created for its HVAC systems. This story shows us the danger in connected systems, and smart meters are no more proof against these threats than a smart fridge.
Without adequate security protection it may be possible to hack people’s personal supplies, falsify data, or even disrupt national power grids, warned Canadian MPP, Peter Tabuns. “We need to have standards, we need to make sure they’re in place, and we need to protect people privacy and their security,” he said.
The privacy question means anyone with access to smart meter data can see exactly what makes up a ratepayer’s electrical use. This information can reveal people’s daily routines, when people are in or out of their house, and could conceivably be mined for marketing and advertising purposes (Canada’s Auditor General warns of this).
There has already been one high profile case in which British Gas was forced to begin encrypting data transmitted via its smart meter accompanying heating app when Which? identified that burglars could access this information to tell when homes were left empty.
With utilities planning to install millions of smart meters there’s a built-in safety risk. These connected devices sit on the energy network, and are just as liable to component failure as any other always-on electrical product.
We’ve already seen signs of the danger here, Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority recently ordered 5,400 smart meters be removed (at a cost of $15 million) after eight of the meters caught fire in just two months. That’s not an isolated case.
Addressing this, utility providers, governments and regulators are developing technical specifications for these meters, including the application of regulation to ensure providers do not expose customers to potentially dangerous electromagnetic fields.
Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.