WRITTEN ON January 16th, 2012 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Design: user-oriented, Foundation of Trust, Greener government IT

It’s a big and timely question as government and businesses across Europe get ready to spend up to $100bn on smart metering projects. In the UK that means the intended rollout of 53m gas and electricity smart meters to 26m households at a projected cost of £11.7bn. That’s on the same scale as the NHS Connecting for Health programme or the benighted late and unlamented National ID Scheme.

Which? offers up a good intro to what the smart metering plan means for UK consumers, along with a ‘No selling, just installing’ campaign.

But there are more issues. This is a huge sum of money to commit at any time and especially now with the country broke. Will we get good value? Is the £11.7bn figure the pre-inflation, pre-ballooning costs and pre Cook’s-constant estimate (the MoD rule of thumb is to take the first estimate and multiply by pi to get the eventual real figure).

Given this move is about changing behaviour we have to ask are the incentives right across government, regulated utilities and consumers?

Then there’s the data. Which? broaches the matter. As I understand it, the smart meters generate a highly detailed picture of your energy usage. The plan is to create a new company to which all the data gets uploaded. Users can then access the data through the portal of their own supplier.

Will the system be sufficiently secure, given what is at stake? And whose data is it anyway? To proponents of individual control over individual data this looks hopelessly messy, expensive and risky.

Ross Anderson and others warned early and often that NPfIT, the ID scheme and other vanity megadatabases were headed for disaster. So we’d do well to heed what he and Shailendra Fuloria also of Cambridge Uni now write in their very helpful 2011 paper Smart meter security: a survey.

It covers smart metering issues including security, personal privacy, threats to the infrastructure and fraud. As well as being gifted with a vast brain and clear understanding of technology, Ross has achieved a whole series of deeper insights earlier than others by focussing on security economics and analysing the inevitable results of perverse incentives. In this case, the authors conclude:

…it is a fascinating case study in security economics:
systems are much harder to protect when incentives conflict, and
smart metering exposes perverse incentives galore.

Of course we’ll all have smart meters or smart energy monitoring devices. But is the government’s great smart-meter project destined to be part of the non-ideal databankendammerung?

It feels wrong in many ways. It feels every inch like the last big project trying to sneak through before a new principle takes hold: the principle that individuals should as far as possible control their personal data. That changes everything. This project looks like one for the chop.

Thx to Alex, Vin, Luke and FIPR colleagues

6 Responses to “What’s the ideal way to get smart data about energy use?”

Mike wrote on January 16th, 2012 4:54 pm :

“Of course we’ll all have smart meters or smart energy monitoring devices.”
Um, no – I won’t be having one. They are NOT mandatory and they cannot enter your property or fit them WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT. Say “No” – it’s easy when you try and makes even the most spineless amongst us appear like they have a backbone.

The dark side of Smart Meters

William Heath wrote on January 16th, 2012 10:11 pm :

Fair enough Mike; yes, it should be everyone’s choice. I just imagine that an inexpensive home hub under my own control that lets me set things remotely and keeps my own records will be a no-brainer. But there was no intention to suggest that be imposed universally.

Alex Stobart wrote on January 17th, 2012 7:47 am :

Given this huge potential outlay £ 12 billion, and the fact it is a project disturbingly akin to NHSforIT, is there not a case for the Government Digital Service to be included in a team that reviews the business case ?

That team ought to include Ross Anderson too, given his paper and extensive knowledge of the agenda.

Devolution may also help Scotland here, as I’m not sure if metering is a reserved or devolved power ? I think it is reserved.

This prject may be one on the same platform as HS2 – press on, regardless of cost / benefit.

Meter Guy wrote on January 21st, 2012 10:45 pm :

Whilst you might not be required to have a Smart meter, it will be a condition of the contract to supply energy that it is metered, as is the current case – you don’t get to choose or own the meter that is currently in your home. In 5 or 10 years time there will be no market for non-smart meters anywhere in the developed world, and nor will there be any organised field force out there to come and collect a reading twice a year. Would you be happier to trust the utility billing systems to estimate your consumption, or accept a remotely monitored meter, as you have for your phone, your sky, your broadband usage etc.

And for Alex, this is actually a central government contract for a central data and communications service, and six major implementation programmes by big utilities. Commercial utilities who are not controlled by government and who will compete on the services they can provide once the platform for smart is installed.

This is not centrally funded by Government, their spend is actually in the order of tens of millions to establish a contracting body for commercial organisations to use – the £11bn will be invested by utilities, their shareholders and their customers. This is no NHS, or HS2, but remains a risky endeavour, granted – the risk is carried by shareholders, not taxpayers – an absolutely critical distinction

Metering has been a commercial activity for decades, with minimal regulation – so unless devolution means nationalising energy – removing choice and competition – then there’s nothing anyone north or south of the border can do to stop smart meters being installed.

Oh, and Ross Anderson is simply aggrieved that his groundless scaremongering has been rightly ignored by the Government and anyone who understands the topic.

Vin Sumner wrote on January 24th, 2012 8:45 pm :

William , the point that is often missed is the difference between demand side and supply side smart metering ; this initiative is mainly about supply side so the energy companies can bill is more accurately and far less about behaviour change. I understand that the there will be an in home display but there will be no data api for the consumer, strange as its our data.

As we discussed more thought needs to be given to the whole concept of home data , who has access and what it can be used for …..


William Heath wrote on February 4th, 2012 10:03 am :

& Vin writes to point out it’ll be voluntary now:

He fears that might be chaos. I reckon it means things can turn out right. Key point remains that the individual controls the detailed data from the smart meter, and that utilities get only what’s needed for accurate billing.