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Smart meters: too smart for our own good?

Posted by Tasha Kosviner on 30 September 2013 at 10:15 am

A survey by the Energy Saving Trust has found that almost three quarters of respondents support the installation of smart meters in their homes. 

But commentators are warning that the meters pose risks to individual privacy and national security. 

The survey, conducted ahead of the government’s plans to install smart meters in 30 million British homes by 2020 found that 73 per cent of the 2,019 people who responded said they would welcome smart meters in their homes, finding the concept of the technology “appealing”. 

But others are warning that more work needs to be done to ensure that the data collected by smart meters is protected from malicious hackers and that it is not misused by the energy companies who collect it. 

Inside each smart meter is a sim card that enables the device to communicate with the utility companies that supply gas and electricity. But it will also enable them, or crucially a hacker, to tamper with or terminate your supply remotely.

Security consultant Eireann Leverett said that while there were many reasons why hackers might want to mess with your energy use data, one could be corporate sabotage. 

“If I could raise the price of electricity for a business I don’t like for three months, they might have trouble paying that off,” he explains.

On a international level, the hacking of an entire nation’s power grid could be catastrophic. In 2010, Prof Ross Anderson, from Cambridge University wrote a paper expressing concern about the “strategic vulnerability” of the UK’s infrastructure with the introduction of smart meters. 

“The off switch creates information security problems of a kind, and on a scale, that the energy companies have not had to face before.”

Smart meters are the next generation of gas and electricity meters. They collect information about energy use in homes and businesses electronically, without the need for periodic meter readings. An in-home display unit provides minute-by-minute information on how much gas and electricity a household is using, alongside energy cost and tariff information. 

The Energy Saving Trust (EST), who commissioned the survey, said that smart meters would lead to “greater control and empowerment for the consumer.”

“Households will have greater control over their domestic budgets through receiving bills based on the exact energy used, not on an estimate,” said Graham Passmore, technical delivery manager at the EST. "They will also be able to keep track of their energy used through trusted real-time information.”

But others are questioning whether we really need that information to make informed choices. Online forums are abuzz with people suggesting that they don’t need a smart meter to tell them that switching off lights, or running their dishwashers less frequently, would use less energy. 

The concern is that the meters are really for utility companies to be able to more accurately ascertain when people use the most power and to therefore be more targeted about when their tariffs are higher – i.e. when energy is in most demand. 

It is hoped that the market might respond with, for example, washing machines that can be programmed to go on when tariffs are at their lowest. And, smart meters should enable consumers to be more aware about which appliances are more energy intensive and to be more careful about using them only at cheaper times. 

In any case, it must surely be a good thing to do away with the uncertainty and suspicion generated by “estimated readings”. If we can see that we are directly paying only for the energy we use, that should give us a feeling of greater of control. 

In response to the question of security, the government has plans to make it compulsory for utility companies to sign up to a code of practice before installing smart meters in homes and businesses. The 45-page document requires that customers are made aware of how much energy use data is collected by suppliers and when, and that suppliers comply with a minimum standard when installing the meters in homes and businesses.

The question of international security is rather more hazy. In the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s response to the public consultation on smart meters, they say: 

"The government has produced security requirements to mitigate, within an agreed tolerance, the anticipated risks that the end-to-end smart metering system will introduce. These requirements provide for key security controls in areas such as the encryption of sensitive data, checks on the validity of critical commands sent within the system, and the tamper resistance of metering equipment (among other areas)."

The problem is that making the new digital meters more secure requires considerable investment for a relatively low-cost product.

"It's hard to do," , Mr Leverett said.

"The meters have to be very inexpensive to roll out across the country - it's a real challenge fitting in the security that people need with keeping the cost down."

More information

The YouGen guide to understanding energy

From the blog

Smart meter introducton moves into phase 2 (July 2011)

 

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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Comments

4 comments - read them below or add one

PhillyWilson

PhillyWilsonComment left on: 30 May 2015 at 10:28 am

Thanks, really useful post.

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cg617

cg617Comment left on: 12 April 2014 at 3:39 pm

I'm a new member to this site but have had a 4KWh PV installation for a year now and have been trying to catch up on, 'IF', the smart meters will be a benefit to us - the customer.

It took some finding but the technical spec for the smart meter(s) is here:-

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/68898/smart_meters_equipment_technical_spec_version_2.pdf

And interestingly, HAS to have an export register.  You don’t hear the power companies shouting about this facility.

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gd33

gd33Comment left on: 21 November 2013 at 9:53 am

I agree that the smart gas and electricity meters give the customer far greater control, and the uncertainty of 'estimated readings' is taken away. If they can help the customer save money and reduce energy usage then i think they're a good thing. However, with the issues raised in this article about potential sabotage and threats, this is definitely something worth considering also. 

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Incandescent

IncandescentComment left on: 30 September 2013 at 4:05 pm

Germany has of course decided that the very low energy and emissions savings don't justify the investment, especially for very small consumers, and won't be proceeding with the rollout. 

Why not ? Large concerns typically expect a return on investment of 20%, SMEs maybe 15%, the Green Deal loan rate seems to be 7-10%, the regulated (intended) return from the Feed-in-Tariff is around 5% and Smart Meters ? Just 3% according to DECC figures. 

The UK could still decide that Smart Meters don't justify such a huge proxied investment by the consumer (c£11bn). Meanwhile, lots of questions remain and I'm awaiting a reply from OFGEM, who did not answer these questions first time around:

1. The wording of the first response was unclear: Is future compulsion to have a Smart Meter intended ?

2.  First response omitted answer: Who will be liable for any future health effects from Smart Meters: the Government which implemented the EU Directive or the utility company which selected and fitted the smart meter ?

3. First response unaware of "free electricity on Saturdays": What are the intentions for variable tariffs (reports are that after Smart Metering, bills have increased and shown unexplained spikes) ?

4. First response unclear: Do energy suppliers intend to interrupt supplies for grid stability (the Minister has admitted that this is possible in future) ?

5. First response inferred storage: Does the DCC have powers to collect and store consumer data (and could this be for future fiscal/taxation purposes, perhaps connecting "DEC" consumption to "EPC" forecasts ?

6. One supplier implies in its charter that Smart Meters are compulsory, please would OFGEM regard the first email as a complaint (OFGEM did not acknowledge that).

 

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