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Gov 'smart meter' plans: Sky box in charge of your house

Smart for energy companies, crippled for users

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Analysis The UK government has unveiled its plans for so-called "smart" energy meters, to be compulsory throughout Blighty in future. The proposed technology appears like excellent news for energy companies, offering them many options to cut costs and perhaps carbon emissions. Chances for consumers to be truly "smart", however, aren't part of the plans - ordinary users are set to remain locked out of the short-term energy market.

The government actually announced plans for universal smart metering last October, but this week has brought us the detail of what Whitehall has in mind. The next stage is a public consultation, in which everybody gets a chance to sound off and - just possibly - get the plans amended. It might be quite a good idea for consumers to do so; thus far it appears that the energy industry's ideas have been listened to. By contrast user groups seem to have focused mainly on the costs of introducing the new kit, rather than what it will actually do.

The actual specs on what the "smart meters" will be like is found at Section 3 of this pdf. The government would like, in outline, to see the following things:

1) Capability for remote meter readings, meaning that energy companies needn't sent out employees to take readings.

2) Two-way communications "between the meter and the energy supplier or other designated market organisation". This would allow "remote configuration and diagnostics, software and firmware changes" - in other words the thing will work like a Sky or TiVo set-top box, under the control of its master authority outside the home.

3) Home-network abilities, allowing an in-home meter display and possibly the ability to watch one's meter reading on other devices such as computers, TVs etc.

4) The ability for energy firms to cut off supplies remotely. Gas meters would probably include a remotely-operable shutoff valve for this purpose.

5) Ability to measure "exported" electricity, as when a house sells 'leccy back to the grid - perhaps from a plugged-in electric car or other storage system. Similarly the meter must be able to work with microgeneration equipment so as to let people sell electricity to the grid.

6) The "ability to remotely [ie from outside the premises] control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home". The grid authorities already have some ability to "manage demand" - ie ration energy supplies - but they plainly want more tools to this end.

The government sees the meters being under the authority of a central body along the lines of the national grid, rather than by the power companies themselves. However, the central authority would hand off control of various functions to the suppliers, or implement them at the suppliers' request.

So far, it's very much a wish list for the energy companies. They get to lay off all their meter-reading employees, and very probably move to universal, fully automated, paperless billing. Administration attendant on losing or gaining customers, disputes over meter readings, or cutting off those who don't pay becomes hugely simpler for them. This removes a major part of their in-house costs - actual energy generation is usually handled by different companies, or different parts of the same group.

So what's in it for the consumer?

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