Whenever a massive new project is unveiled, people who specialize in the various aspects that come into play in the project will offer their advice or criticisms. This factor has certainly been up front in the debate over the UK’s smart meter programme, and many of the dissenting voices have put forward cases that seem to call into question the method and means of the project, if not the project itself.
To begin with, the goal of the smart meter programme is to ultimately rein in power consumption on an end-user level by making the usage demonstrably more efficient. This goal is considered laudable by practically everyone who has an opinion to state on the issue, since there aren’t a lot of commentators who wish to promote energy inefficiency. Consequently, there is general agreement that it is both wise and desirable to find ways to maximize the “bang for the buck” that consumers receive when they use electricity to power their homes.
However, while the vast majority of citizens agree that a more efficient method of using power is an excellent goal, many are finding flaws in both the numbers that are being used to promote the project, and further, in the method that the data from the meters will be transmitted and handled. Some question the overall impact of a system that is generally considered to be a monitoring programme that is, ultimately, only as good as the way it used. Should consumers disregard the numbers being served up by their meters, there will be not change in the way they use energy and the meters will have no discernable impact.
Such a monitoring programme might be considered akin to a box on everyone’s telly displaying simply how many hours they’ve watched this week. While most people answering pollsters’ questions believe they should spend less time watching television, being told how much time they currently devote to TV viewing would not cause them to watch less, it would merely confirm what they already acknowledge, that they watch more television than they think they should. Likewise, many people feel that they use too much energy to power their homes, but the smart meter may ultimately serve only as a new way to confirm that widely-held notion.
First, considering the numbers that are floating about in this debate, there is a very wide gap between the statistical conclusions being used by the government and the data that is being offered up by independent analysts. Generally, the case that the government puts forward offers the projection of a net benefit of nearly five billion pounds as a result of the implementation of the smart meter project. Analysts are questioning the usage of government statistics that may not be properly taking into consideration that large numbers of UK households rely on relatively efficient condenser boilers for their heating. It appears to some critics of the programme that the government has extrapolated their numbers and projections without considering this factor, rendering their numerical conclusions flawed.
Second, some commentators are pointing out that there are examples of this type of programme being applied in Europe, specifically in Spain and Italy, that call into question the UK’s choice of wireless technology as the means of transmitting smart meter data instead of existing powerline networks. The use of the existing powerline grid would introduce far less financial outlay overall than the introduction of the wireless system. To point to the relative success of the Spanish and Italian systems is an “apples to oranges” comparison because the UK will be using a completely different system to implement a very major portion of the scheme.
Lastly, it is the opinion of many observers that a wireless-based reporting system opens up the unhappy possibility of hacking and other computer mischief being introduced into the mix. Information technology professionals point to the security flaws inherent in such a system, and many warn of unexpected and unforeseen consequences from such an endeavor. They point out that whenever new technologies are applied to real-life circumstances problems may occur. An example that they site is the case of American version of the smart meter programme that initially distributed 200,000 of the meters only to encounter a problem with over 5,000 of the units leading to having to replace the faulty meters. Hardware complications such as this drive the cost of the programme even higher and take away from the net value.
In an age when all civilized cultures are becoming increasingly aware of the ultimate impact of their energy usage, the concept of the smart meter is one of the natural options society will turn to. The question is, “is it the smart option?”