Smart Meter Operators Can “Turn Off Power-Hungry Appliances Without Permission”


By Cristina Brooks | Originally published at her Energy Writing blog

Many claim that a surge of energy coming through from new wind, solar, and other renewables can cause a short circuit in the grid called a ‘fault.’ This is one reason why OFGEM is paying  London’s grid operator, UK Power Networks, a £25 million grant to test a technology touted to allow more renewables.

Smart metering is a new technology being rolled out across the UK next year, according to government officials.

The executive of the EU government, the European Commission, promoted smart metering with its 2009 Third Energy Package, when it required countries to conduct studies on installing smart meters.

As opposed to regular meters, smart meter technology lets utilities do meter readings instantly at a much more detailed level, and control grid activity in real time.

One use of smart meters is to use them to convince companies – and potentially all energy consumers – to ‘turn the lights off’* more.

When energy is in high demand at dinnertime, the grid operators may use the data collected by smart meters to charge consumers more. Theoretically the high prices may persuade them to turn off the lights during these times and decrease their bills.

Experts in the field, however, suggest that this will only be possible for consumers who have large houses, for example, posessing multiple rooms and washer dryers, whereas the poorest will be helpless to change their energy consumption habits.

The grid operator can also use smart meters to ‘turn off the lights’ at a property, or potentially turn off power-hungry appliances, like washer dryers or heaters, without the owners’ permission, during these ‘peak’ times.

Utilities may use this data to offer bill reductions to commercial consumers, in the form of a contract which makes them promise to ‘turn of the lights’ at ‘peak’ hours, or promising to generate with renewables at times when the copper wires are clear for a surge of green energy, or potentially operate the renewables themselves.

Smart meters allow the utility multiple ways to improve its own profits. The most obvious is they don’t have to send meter readers or maintenance personnel so much, and they may possibly pay less to upgrade the grid.

They will likely use them to charge higher prices during ‘peak’ times. The higher prices they charge can finance gas fired ‘peaking’ power. Also if people can be convinced (or forced) to use less electricity, it may help it to hide the fact that fuel prices and carbon taxes for fossil fuel power generation are rising, allowing utilities to keep running their fossil fuel power plants, which are costly 30 year investments.

Utilities would like to use smart meters to help with some serious problems with the current structure of the energy market. For one,
introducing electric cars and heating would make peaks too costly to generate electricty for. Also, current markets interfere with accurately
billing renewable power, and the growth of international energy markets presents new challenges. They also face a growing number of distributed renewable generators which compete with their power plants, and at the same time an unwillingness on the part of banks to finance large-scale renewable energy projects.

Smart meters have the potential to be used to expand use of high tech renewables, renewable heat, solar panels on rooftops, and allow consumers to store their own renewable energy in batteries, although apparently there are few, if any utilities in the world using them this way: They are using them to pay for fossil fuel plants used as ‘peaking’ capacity. They could instead turn renewable power into ‘peaking’ capacity: Regulations could ensure this occurs sooner rather than later, and also could break up the monopolies that keep small scale generators from earning an incentivising profit.

Once these smart meter trials are rolled out as law in coming years, it will solidify centralised control of the grid by the current generators, without necessarily offering better grid access to new renewable generators who may be able to offer consumers more competitive electricity prices.

Because of this, the government should consider whether the smart meter operators have any interests that potentially hinder the program’s green goals.

OFGEM’s trial smart meter operators, UK Power Networks’ and EDF are parented by companies that sell natural gas through their subsidiaries. EDF sells gas through its trading company, along with owning natural gas fields, while UK Power Networks’ fellow subsidiary has a stake in a UK gas grid. (45) (46) (47) (36) EDF is building at least two gas-fired power plants in the UK.

In Germany, gas power and renewable power compete for grid access, and gas consumption has declined, with gas power plants being shuttered. (56) It’s worth noting that Germany, arguably one of the most successful countries in the world in making a wholesale transition from fossil fuels to renewable power, has apparently rejected the EU’s smart meter programme.

It appears that grid operators and power companies see smart meters as a way to forestall paying for other grid-balancing solutions for renewables, for example, storage and grid reinforcement, at the same time allowing utilities with fossil fuel interests to control the scale-up of renewable power. (27)

Norway’s largest utility, Statkraft, may have an answer to the UK’s grid problem: it is planning a massive pumped energy storage reservoir in Norway that can store the UK’s wind power.

After storing the wind power the UK generates, it will then sell back to the UK for a cost, as it shows in a promotional video. (37) However, the UK government can instead choose to invest in its own energy storage, reaping the benefits of efficiency and local ownership.

The pressing issue of bill rises means the public is already paying for a new grid, so it needs to consider what grid it prefers: a weak, centralised grid that requires paying utilities to turn the lights and renewables off and on, or a reinforced grid with storage that supports community and utility-scale renewable energy projects.

*’Turn the lights off’ means voluntary reduction of energy usage through any number of means or appliances, not specifically lights.

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