The utterly immoral behaviour of an apparently significant number of MPs is something that I find truly abhorrent. Without a shadow of a doubt, the authority of the UK parliament as an institution and the politicians that occupy it have both been severely damaged.
It’s going to be extremely difficult to take them seriously until there has been a profound reform of how the whole political system operates. Perhaps inevitably, the energy sector has not been immune to these problems, and we learned recently that a former energy minister, Lord Truscott, has been suspended from the House of Lords for six months as a consequence of the so-called “cash for laws” scandal.
Truscott was a well paid consultant to one of the world’s largest manufacturers of smart meters and it is alleged that he was involved in persuading the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to amend the Energy Bill as it passed through parliament to ensure that smart meters would be installed in every UK home. Truscott himself is quite open about this and has not only admitted his involvement, but boasted about it. In fact, I get the impression that he uses it as a marketing tool.
So what did he achieve? Well, perhaps “achieve” is not exactly the right word.
In essence, the Government has decided that, by 2020, every one of the UK’s 26million households will have a so-called smart meter installed. It says that it hopes this will reduce carbon emissions by a third and will enable people to better manage their electricity consumption.
It will also allow supply companies to better manage demand, and the Government throws in the carrot that this should lead to the suppliers being able to offer improved off-peak deals. One idea mentioned is that if you run your dishwasher during off-peak hours, such as between 1am and 5am, you will be offered a cheaper rate.
Not that I want to pour cold water on that particular proposal (ha, ha) but I think everyone should copy my example and just stop using their dishwasher. Ours broke down last Christmas and we have decided not to replace it because we found that not only does this save huge amounts of electricity, but doing the dishes by hand means you can actually chat to your wife/girlfriend/children/significant other or whoever else is doing the drying up. I’m sure some sociologist will tell us that this is good for family cohesion.
Energy’s editor won’t even have one in his house.
The aim of the Government is to instal smart meters at the rate of 2.6million every year over the next decade. This will cost an estimated £7-9billion – or between £269 and £346 per household.
That’s the Government’s estimate, but Ernst and Young says this figure is far too low. Its estimate is that the true cost would be at least 49% higher – about £13.4billion, or £515 per household.
Knowing the public sector’s propensity to underestimate costs and timescales, I think I’ll side with E&Y.
Of course, regardless of who is right, it’s the consumer who is going to have to pay for the installation via higher electricity bills.
The motive is also very questionable. Although, obviously, if you use less electricity you will account for less carbon dioxide, the real motive is that the power companies want us to “spread out” how we consume electricity so they don’t have to use so many power stations at the same time to allow for sudden surges in demand. This saves them lots of money, and that, of course, is the real motive. But what happens if we do all take this idea to heart and monitor our electricity use so well that we actually use, say, 10% or 15% less. Although I really don’t see many people staying up until 1am or getting up before 5am just to put the dishwasher on, the biggest obstacle will be people.
Smart meters will amuse some for a while, whereas others – and I would think it will be the vast majority – will simply ignore the things from day one. But if we all did start using 10% less electricity and the bills we paid went down by 10%, the utility company shareholders in the City would soon start squealing as this began to hit profits. So I wonder how long it would be before electricity prices were put up to compensate for our thrift and better energy management.
The other advantage of the smart meter is that it will measure and make sure you get paid for the electricity you generate yourself and feed back into the grid from that wind turbine on your roof, your solar cells, a hydroelectric plant in the burn at the bottom of your garden or, indeed, your biomass-fired domestic combined heat and power plant. For the moment, of course, home generation remains a minority and expensive sport, so this will benefit very few people.
So far then, I really can’t find any possible reason to encourage anyone to instal a smart meter, but I can see lots of reasons to refuse to have one.
Smart meters mean no more meter readers because your consumption data will be recorded automatically.
I have to say, actually, that I find that a little concerning because it would soon become technically possible not just to measure how much electricity you are using, but what you are using it on. Modern domestic hardware can easily be made smart enough to tell you when it’s on or off.
This could lead to that data being passed to other companies who want to sell you something, or even to Government agencies that are interested in your movements and habits.
However, I wonder at what point the technology will be developed further to enable it to actually switch appliances off. Electricity companies will be able to stop you using your dishwasher until 1am and Government will be able to turn televisions on and off in order to stop you seeing what they don’t want you see.
OK, my wife says I’m being just a tad too neurotic here, but then I’ve left her to do the drying up. But I really am not sure that I trust Government not to allow itself to be talked into anything that allows it to have more control over what we do.
Of course, from an industrially strategic standpoint, it will be US brands such as General Electric or IBM, or Landis+Gyr, a Swiss group, that will be the real winners.
Lord Truscott’s self-interest would seem to have a much broader impact than improving his bank balance.
The data-protection issue is one thing, but the £9billion or so smart meters will cost would, in my mind, have been better spent on developing ways in which appliances simply use less energy – 10% should be achievable.