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Smart metering will disrupt weather forecasts, warns Met Office

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The Met Office has warned that Ofcom's planned deregulation of radio spectrum for Home Area Networking kit risks disrupting radar-based weather forecasts.

The airwave regulator's recent public consultation into opening up new spectrum garnered overwhelming industry support for releasing the proposed bandwidths into the public domain, so 'leccy companies can use them to manage our consumption.

Ofcom proposes handing 870-876MHz and 915-921MHz into unlicensed use, an idea overwhelmingly supported by all the companies planning to sell smart meters and RFID kit using those bands to enable remote control/monitoring of our appliances by power utilities.

Even the mobile network operators, who run the viable competition, are cautiously welcoming the proposals, perhaps aware they'll not prevent their release.

This leaves only the 100-per-cent-reliable Meteorological Office to raise a flag, pointing out that blanketing the UK in smart meters will make it impossible to see incoming rainfall.

The Met uses Doppler radar between 915 and 917MHz to "see" rain clouds, based on differing reflections which would be very susceptible to interference from the mesh networks of smart meters the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) expects to see blanketing the country by 2019.

That band properly belongs to the Ministry of Defence, as does 870-872MHz, but the MoD has indicated it's happy to hand them over - so the Met is girding its loins for a fight as its response to the consultation shows (pdf, short and to the point).

Other responses are hugely supportive of the idea, pointing out that DECC's figures reckon that not deploying smart meters in every UK home (by 2019) will cost consumers £6.3bn over 18 years*, with utilities being forced to spend an additional £9.07bn over the same period. Clearly there's a financial imperative to release the spectrum as quickly as possible and hand over control of our central heating, white goods etc to our local utility, who will apparently manage them more effectively than we do ourselves.

Looking a little closer at those figures (pdf, very dry) we see that £6.26bn of that saving will come from us using less electricity once we can see how much we're consuming. A disappointing £43m will be saved though micro-generation (from all those subsidised solar panels on the Scillies), but we can't help wondering if a forced reduction in consumption can really be considered a "saving" as such.

Utilities, meanwhile, will save £3.37bn by not having to read meters, and £1.46bn in carbon tax, while spending £794m less on generating electricity.

Not that the numbers are plucked from the air, as the analyst response sponsored by Silver Spring Networks (a leading player in smart metering) tells us (pdf, long and aspirational, but has pictures). Trials conducted in the US across 50,000 homes, who let the utility tweak their thermostats, reduced consumption at peak times by between eleven and thirty-three per cent across 98 per cent of properties - the remaining two per cent apparently overriding the imposed restrictions, as is their right. Multiply that number up by the UK population and we get savings of £6.75bn in the 18 years following deployment.

It's all about "demand side management" or "demand response management" depending on which euphemism one prefers, but basically letting the electricity companies adjust our thermostats and switch off our washing machines when everyone puts the kettle on in the advert break, and it's the prime motivation behind smart metering (and the release of suitable radio spectrum), though not the only one.

Silver Spring's response also points out that smart meters can monitor the incoming voltage, preventing oversupply, and the bands won't just be used for smart meters: networks monitoring bush fires, such as those laying waste to Scotland last month, could also make very effective use of them. Awesense has also been creating mesh networks to identify electricity theft and leakage using the upper band.

It's not Ofcom's role to decide if Smart Meters are a good idea, or a pointless and perhaps rather worrying political gesture. Rather, Ofcom's job is to provide enough radio spectrum for the government of the day to do as it wishes. To that end Ofcom will probably release both bands early, looking to deploy equipment in Spring next year, and that's to be applauded - even if some of the applications to which it's put might seem a bit misguided. ®

Bootnote

*So, assuming 60 million UK consumers that would be a saving of £5 per head per year in exchange for having spy gear and remote controlled switches reporting to the energy companies (and anyone with access to their records) installed throughout all our homes.

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