Why Smart Meters Are Vital to the UK’s Net-Zero Targets

The Eco Experts
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The UK is a leader in the shift towards more sustainable energy usage, but there’s always more to be done. What can the average person do to help though?

It can be daunting thinking about how a single household can reduce their energy usage enough to make a difference. There is a simple and oftentimes misunderstood tool for this, one that can have a bigger impact than many would expect.

This tool is a smart meter. But what is a smart meter? And how can they actually help reduce energy consumption? We’re exploring everything there is to know about smart meters and looking at exactly why they’re vital to the UK’s push to meet net-zero.

smart meter on a table

What is a smart meter?

A smart meter is a tool that automatically reads your gas and electricity meters. It then sends these readings to your energy provider, meaning you don’t need to manually read the meters.

Smart meters are equipped with screens (otherwise called in-home displays) that show you exactly how much energy you’re using. They also show you how much your energy is costing you, which makes it much easier to gauge your energy usage.

Sometimes, smart meters come with dedicated green apps for your smartphone/device. This makes it possible to see your energy usage when you’re not at home.

Why are smart meters important in the UK’s push for net zero?

First off, a little bit about what ‘peak’ energy usage means for UK households. Peak energy usage is when homes across the UK are expected to be using the most energy. This usually coincides with people getting ready for or back from work, cooking dinner, or settling down to watch TV in the evening.

Understanding what energy peaks are will paint a clearer picture of how smart meters can help the UK reach net zero. Because once you understand what the peak times are, you can learn how smart meters help avoid them. Most importantly, they make it easier for households to reduce energy consumption.

To give you a better idea, here are some scenarios where a smart meter can make a tangible impact on the UK’s energy use:

 

They encourage better energy consumption

Energy consumption prior to smart meters was very difficult to assess and it led to people using more energy than they needed. With a smart meter however, people can see exactly how much energy they use and how much it costs them, so they can make conscious decisions to reduce it.

There’s something visceral about seeing how much energy you use day to day, not just on your bill at the end of the month. A smart meter then, has the immediate benefit of encouraging people to change their habits.

Whether this is as small as remembering to turn off the lights, or avoiding boiling the kettle more than is necessary, a smart meter makes it obvious how much energy (and money) you’re saving.

 

Smart meters and electric vehicle charging

Another great example of how smart meters can help reduce energy usage is with electric vehicle charging. With more and more households adopting electric cars, there will inevitably be more people charging them. This has the obvious effect of increasing how much electricity a typical UK household will use.

As more households use more electricity, often at the same time, the power grid will likely fall back on carbon-intensive power generation to meet this short-term need. Not a good scenario in the drive to net-zero!

What a smart meter can do to remedy this is help identify when the peak electric vehicle charging times are. They can then recommend to the electric vehicle owner a better time to charge their vehicle.

Something else to think about is ‘V2G’ (vehicle-to-grid) technology. This is where an electric vehicle’s battery is used to store electricity that is then pumped back into the power grid. The effect is a reduced burden on the power grid and subsequently, reduced emissions.

 

Real-time data

An issue right now is that peak times are determined by historical data, which means that power plants anticipate peaks based on older trends for energy use and generate electricity accordingly.

So you often have a situation where too much electricity is generated as power plants ramp up to meet an expected peak. With real-time data however, power plants can meet demand when it actually happens.

How do smart meters help with this? Smart meters are brilliant at providing live data feeds to energy suppliers. With real-time data, power plants can increase or decrease the electricity they generate according to how much energy households need in the moment.

The main advantage of this is that with real-time data on electricity usage, you can actually start to shift away from big, polluting power plants. You can instead measure exact energy use throughout the day and supplement it with less-powerful, but far more sustainable local energy sources.

For more on local energy generation, check out our guide on community energy projects and how you can get involved.

man uses smart meter through mobile app

How many UK homes have smart meters?

According to the Department for Business, Industry and Energy Strategy, there are 24.2 million total smart meters installed in UK homes. This is a substantial increase over the 14.94 million total smart meters installed in 2018, but as you’ll see below, it’s not quite the increase some had hoped for…

 

When will the smart meter rollout be finished?

It was originally planned that by the end of 2020, every single household in the UK would have a smart meter. This ended up an unrealistic target and instead, a target of 85% of UK households with smart meters by 2024 was put forward.

To help with this, the UK government has (as of 2019) begun imposing strict smart meter installation requirements for energy suppliers, with threats of potential fines if targets are missed.

It’s good to see the UK government take this seriously, but as always actions speak louder than words so we will wait and see if they actually meet this target.

 

Are any homes not suitable for a smart meter?

A problem with the government's target is that not every single house can work properly (or efficiently) with a smart meter. In fact, it’s estimated that one in every three UK households experience problems with their smart meters!

The sorts of issues that cause problems for smart meters are numerous, but here’s a few to get started with:

  • Blocks of flats – smart meter data can get jumbled with all the other signals coming from other flats.
  • Thick walls – older properties in particular often have walls that are too thick for a smart meter signal to effectively penetrate.
  • Solar panels – you’d think this sustainable tech would gel well with smart meters but nope, many manufacturers won’t install a meter because they say they can’t yet measure how much electricity is generated.
  • Energy-saving bulbs – many smart meters cannot tell the difference between the currents used in LED bulbs and bulbs with dimmer switches.

Why do some people not want a smart meter?

It seems odd to think that there are some people who wouldn’t want a smart meter, especially considering the potential benefits. Even considering the benefits though, smart meters and the legislation surrounding them isn’t perfect.

One example is when a smart meter is installed in a rented property without the landlord’s permission. In this scenario, a landlord would be unable to remove the unwanted smart meter without the permission of the energy supplier. This is regardless of the fact they didn’t sanction the smart meter installation in the first place!

Another reason is that there are times when switching energy suppliers will cause a smart meter to stop doing its job. This eliminates the benefits of having a smart meter in the first place.

Security concerns abound too, with many UK homeowners worried that the internet-enabled devices leave them open to cyber attacks. In the age of the ‘Internet of Things’, worries about smart meters and how secure they actually are will likely continue for some time.

Summary

Smart meters and their impact on reaching net-zero have been misunderstood for a long time, so we hope we've been able to make it a little clearer. Still, more needs to be done by both energy suppliers and the UK government to make this easier to understand for homeowners.

In an ideal world, there’d be a comprehensive campaign by the UK government to clear up any lingering doubts about smart meters. Before that happens though, the best anyone can do is make an informed decision on whether a smart meter works for them or not. For us here at The Eco Experts, smart meters are important tools to helping the UK reach net zero, so for that reason we will always recommend them.

Tom Gill Writer

Tom is a big fan of all things eco and has a passionate interest in how technology and localised projects can work together to make the world greener.

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