Bill Jamieson: Terrorists and surveillance state may exploit smart meters

The Trossachs, looking down Loch Earn from St Fillans (Picture: Gordon Clark)The Trossachs, looking down Loch Earn from St Fillans (Picture: Gordon Clark)
The Trossachs, looking down Loch Earn from St Fillans (Picture: Gordon Clark)
Smart meters can make it harder to switch suppliers and could even be used by terrorists or the '˜surveillance state' to snoop on its citizens, writes Bill Jamieson.

Last week I received a startling letter – a planning application from a company based (I do not joke) in the Ponderosa, Scotland Lane, Leeds. It contained details of a planning application to put a 36ft mast just yards from my front door here in the village of Lochearnhead.

What for? Why? How soon? The application was just one of thousands sent out as part of the UK-wide, £11 billion-and-rising “roll-out” of smart electricity meters, bringing great benefits for households we were told, but which, a parliamentary inquiry has just revealed, may save the average household just £11 a year, half the initial savings claimed.

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The cost of the smart-metering installation is colossal. But judging by both local reaction and complaints that have flooded in to local and national media, few want it. It is heading to be a colossal waste of money – and a cost that millions of homeowners will end up paying for with little if any benefit.

The proposed mast would seem the least of the problems. But here it is in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, in an open, exposed area overlooking Loch Earn, directly impinging on the view of Loch Earn and Ben Vorlich beyond – a landscape of incredible beauty and a world-wide visitor draw.

The mast is in itself a surprise as the Park is charged with protecting landscape and visual amenity and there are supposed to be restrictions on developments which impair these.

The documentation reveals seven other sites in the area had been looked at and rejected, including the roof of the village shop in Lochearnhead. This came as a shock to the proprietor as he had been told nothing. His property is a listed building.

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The guidelines for planning objection do not allow comment on the fundamental arguments for smart metering: the 24 pages of accompanying documentation were largely taken up by assertions in favour of the roll-out with no admission of the controversy they have aroused or incidence of failure. So why is this programme being rammed through in the face of widespread criticism, now augmented by the House of Commons’ British Infrastructure Group (BIG)? Its report last week on the roll-out reveals that savings to households may be just £11 a year, compared with the £23 being cited by supporters.

It says the project to place 53 million of the devices in 30 million homes and small businesses by 2020 has so far been “plagued by repeated delays and cost increases”. It also warned of high numbers of the devices “going dumb” after installation due to problems caused by switching provider or mobile data coverage. Costs are continuing to rise, with installation now £1 billion more than planned.

Locally, battle has commenced, the community council is on the case, but while it’s not allowed to challenge the basic case, well, I certainly challenge.

The project is now being investigated for a third time by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog. The report warns that it is “almost certain” to miss the 2020 roll-out deadline and its benefits were “likely to be slashed even further”.

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So how did this scheme ever get off the ground? The roll-out was in response to European Union directives in 2006 and 2009. Groundwork for the project began under Labour in 2008, championed by Ed Milliband, and had been billed as having no downsides.

It’s likely to have concentrated the minds of the energy companies that they stood to be punished if they did not meet their quota for installing the meters. This, say critics, has encouraged them to push forward with meters that are already outdated and unable to cope with customers who may opt to switch suppliers. BIG itself warned that suppliers were still rolling out “obsolete” first generation smart meters, which were supposed to have been succeeded by November 2016. The principal concerns are these: First, smart meters could make it harder to switch gas and electricity providers. Some of the “first generation” smart meters fitted in households are currently incompatible with a new national communications network – which is how your usage data is transmitted to the energy provider.

Meters not connected to this system “go dumb” when consumers switch suppliers, meaning their new smart meters are no better than the old-fashioned ones. Customers would have to submit readings manually as before – something which can actually be more difficult with a “smart-meter-turned-dumb” than an old-fashioned meter.

Second, smart meters don’t bring an end to estimated bills (or billing errors). For many homeowners, who believed they would gain even more control over their bills, the introduction has been a disappointment. Millions of bills still refer to “estimated” use, even where customers have smart meters.

Horror stories have swamped social media of customers being billed tens of thousands of pounds incorrectly. An SSE customer supplied with a smart meter was shocked to see a reading that he had used £33,183 of gas in one day. Another said he would be charged nearly £9,600 for his day’s electricity and gas.

A third concern is that smart meters won’t work if you have a poor signal in your area – a significant issue in many parts of rural Scotland.

Further, there’s little evidence so far that smart meters will save energy – or money. Devices designed to reduce usage, including energy-saving LED lightbulbs and dimmer switches, can work to “change the shape” of electrical currents and distort readings. A Dutch study found this resulted in readings up to six times higher than they should have been.

Finally, there are intrusion and security concerns. Security experts have warned that smart meters can be infected with a virus that can spread between different devices and cut some individual energy supplies off. Others warn that they could even be hacked and used for terrorism.

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And many households fear a further intrusion by “the surveillance state”: it may start with harmless-seeming smart meters, then water meters, but every extra electronic device installed in a home extends the scope and scale of surveillance. But who’s worried? Certainly not the promoters at Ponderosa. And when it comes to the final costs of this debacle, don’t we all have money to burn – literally?