The Gist: How Smart Is Your Meter?

People are being told to switch to smart meters to save money. Except, something is up with the whole project. This is the Gist.

The Gist: How Smart Is Your Meter?

Autumn has settled upon us, and the Government knows Winter is coming.  

By and large, people in Ireland like having heating, cooking facilities and hot water in their homes. And, ever since hanging large pots over open hearths burning dried cowpats fell from fashion, they have turned to electricity to meet those needs.

As rumblings of astonishing double-digit increases in electricity prices grow, with their real-world impact likely to be seen when the first new bills start to arrive, attention has fallen on a hitherto obscure tool of the administrative state, the smart meter.

Save money by counting how much you've spent

Let’s look at just one thing the Government has latched onto- urging people to save money by getting a smart meter and switching to a “Smart Meter Tariff”.

We’re going to look at this commonly repeated bit of advice, seen in official statements and lists of energy-saving tips alike, because it is absolute nonsense.

It is completely divorced from reality- a piece of techno-solutionism that dissolves like a disprin on contact with actuality.

Firstly, let’s take the claim at its height. The Irish energy industry regulator, the CRU, ran a trial in 2011, where they installed smart meters on a block of houses and businesses and encouraged the inhabitants to use them in various ways. This consumer behaviour trial is described by the regulator as "one of the largest and most statistically robust smart metering behavioural trials conducted internationally to date".

All of the participants were made a promise, as part of the trial, that if it turned out that their new tariffs based on when they used electrity ended up being more expensive than the normal tarrif they used to have, that the CRU would pay them the difference.

Throughout the Trial all participants testing time-of-use tariffs were guaranteed that they would not pay more for their electricity than if they had been on the normal Electric Ireland tariff (14.1c per unit ex VAT). Accordingly, all participants received a balancing credit at the end of the benchmark period and in January 2011. The small number of individuals who incurred costs above this average were recompensed on a case by case basis.

Having made this a no-lose offer, the trial then proceeded. And what they found will surprise nobody who has lived in a house or worked in a job- the effects of these incentives were marginal when it came to usage. All the pricing incentives, reminders and data only reduced overall electricity usage by 2.5% for houses, and 0.3% for SMEs. In respect of SMEs, the report found "there is no tariff, DSM stimulus or tariff/DSM stimulus group which reduced overall electricity usage or peak usage by a statistically significant amount"

This is unsurprising, because we basically use electricity when we need to use electricity. The reason there are peak demand times when people come home from work is that's the time we turn on the lights and make the dinner. Children will not sit hungry in the dark because you want to wait for the off-peak tariff to kick in. Similarly, SMEs use the electricity they use when they use it, because that is when they are open for business.

And if you struggle through the opaque pricing forests which have been planted around the various tariff options you'll find that a typical estimated annual price difference between using a standard meter and a smart meter, taking account of a time-use tariff for the average user, is just €138 in a year. (€1928 compared to €2064 with Airtricity per That's not a lot of savings for pushing Ireland's toddler bedtime to 10pm.

And, contrary to the habitual pablum from ministers and cost-saving experts, it isn't going to make a dent in a cost of living crisis that has seen electricity costs increase by around 45% this year.

The silent data grab bit

The smart meter project has been going on for years and there are over a million of them in the ground already. There's nothing inherently wrong with a smart meter. We already have metering on electricity, after all. But the difference here is that they can make their own meter readings and send them back to ESB Networks whenever ESB Networks wants them to. And you'd be surprised how often ESB Networks wants to read your meter. Like, every few minutes, it turns out.

These smart meters were originally set up to store detailed half-hour usage data but only transfer that stuff from the meter to ESB Networks if there was a request from the customer, or some other compelling reason why the data was required. Otherwise, the plan, as set out on the CRU's website, was for ESB Networks to default to getting a report once a day on how much power had been used in that 24 hours.

"Every day, ESB Networks will collect data from your smart meter. This will state the amount of electricity used over the last 24-hours."

But ESB Networks is currently (from beginning of October 2022) rejiggling smart meters so that all the granular half hour data from its customers smart meters is being brought into a centralised database, whether customers consent or not and whether their billing tariff needs it or not (and this is suggested to increase to every fifteen minutes after 2025).

This is new. When the smart meter project was being rolled out, as the Internet Archive snapshot of the ESB Networks webpage shows, they were assuring the public that they would only take info from smart meters more regularly than once a day if the customer had signed up for that as part of their tariff deal.

"It is important to note that your meter will only send the minimum amount of data to ESB Networks’ MDMS that is necessary to provide to your supplier for the purposes of billing you in accordance with the tariff or plan that you have selected."

But now, despite that promise remaining, the ESB Networks page says that all smart meters will send them "details, broken down by each half-hour, of the electricity consumed (and exported to the grid, if applicable)"

The result of this huge, but quietly implemented change, is that the ESB networks database will contain a profile of activity in every home in Ireland, broken down into half-hour increments . The state body will know whether the home is occupied and when we enter our homes, and the level of their activity in the home when we do. Every home, whether they agree to a smart meter tariff or not, will be captured.

This represents an unprecedented live surveillance database of all homes in the country. The public don't know (except for you, clever Gist reader). There was no big announcement. They've just flipped a switch and committed to putting our homes under surveillance.

ESB Networks haven't even carried out a proper data protection impact . The DPIA that ESB Networks refers to on their site is an unsigned draft, with no approval recorded on Page 2, and is therefore incomplete. It is also, quite clearly, completely wrong in assessing the impact of their plan. Page 17 reveals just how blind the company is to the consequences of its monitoring.

The process does not include systematic monitoring of data subjects

Sorry, but once you've made this mistake about keeping track of the occupancy and activity level in every single house in the country, you've gone awry. This draft DPIA has a long way to go to even properly assess the impact of this project. Meanwhile, they've already started it.

Why are you telling me this?

Do you know, I don't even know why I told you all of this. Electricity meters are surely the least sexy bit of technology in the universe, up there with electric can openers and Volvos. I suppose I just thought that you might want to know that the things people were telling you about them were just a bit wrong. They won't save you money and, since October, they aren't privacy respecting either.

I promise I'll do a funny one about Elon Musk next Gist.