Energy firms are under enormous pressure to offer every household a smart meter by 2020. But many customers are worried about the risks these gadgets could pose to their health, privacy and wallet.
The new technology tells you how much gas and electricity you are using in pounds and pence and sends a reading to your supplier as often as every half an hour. The idea is that this will help you save money and the environment, and put an end to estimated bills.
But privacy campaigners have raised concerns that firms are being given access to a honeypot of data that tells them when customers are at home and how they use power. They warn that if criminals get their hands on this information they would know when people are typically out of the house or on holiday, and could target their homes.
Smart meters could be in every home by 2020 but the devices have caused many concerns.
Some experts fear that if terrorists or hackers from hostile states found a way to take control of these machines they could switch off the power supply to people’s homes.
Others are anxious that the wireless signals the devices use in people’s homes could pose a health risk.
Yet the Government and energy firms are adamant that there is no need to worry, hailing the meters as wonder gadgets.
Here, we guide you through everything you need to know about smart meters to help you decide if they are right for your home.
COULD HACKERS TARGET SMART METERS?
The smart meter roll-out was heavily criticised by a group of MPs and Lords in a report in July. The British Infrastructure Group said that while smart meters cannot be ‘hacked’ in the usual way, as they are connected to a mobile signal rather than the internet, there are concerns households could be left vulnerable to a cyber-attack.
‘Concerns have been raised over the mobile signal being intercepted, bills artificially inflated, and the excess payments siphoned off,’ the report said.
Experts warn there is no easy way for customers to see who has access to their energy data, how often they look at it and why.
And in 2016 the intelligence agency GCHQ was forced to intervene after discovering loopholes in the design that made them vulnerable to hackers. Using one encryption code across the whole system would present a security risk as it may let hackers switch off the UK’s energy supplies or ‘start blowing things up’, an official told the Financial Times.
Scottish Power admitted the smart meters would allow ‘surge pricing’ where the cost of energy can vary according to the time of day which could push up prices for many families.
However, a spokesman for Smart Energy GB, the body that has been tasked by the Government to communicate the smart meter roll-out, refutes the claims.
He says: ‘The smart meter system was designed … to prevent hacking. The system was developed with the country’s top security experts, including the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ. ‘The only data stored on a meter is your meter readings and tariff. Your name, address and financial details are never stored on your smart meter. This information is sent to your energy supplier with end-to-end encryption and consumers have control over how frequently this is transmitted.’
HOW POWER FIRMS WILL HIKE BILL
Critics question how suppliers will use the data they collect about customers’ energy habits.
A number of firms are now offering their cheapest tariffs to encourage more customers to have a smart meter installed. But in the long run experts say the gadgets could push up prices for many families. Big Six firm Scottish Power admitted the meters would allow ‘surge pricing’, where the cost of energy can vary according to the time of day. The firm said it would consider introducing tariffs where the price you pay for gas and electricity changes as often as every 30 minutes if the regulator gives the go-ahead.
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A third of second-hand electrical device retailers are selling goods that fail safety tests, according to Trading Standards.
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In the MPs’ report, they warned such tariffs could ‘give suppliers a license to significantly increase peak-time prices, under the guise of energy efficiency’. And experts fear the move would hit working families the hardest, as they use most of their power at peak times.
A spokesman for Smart Energy GB, the body tasked with communicating smart meter changes, says: ‘Smart meters are crucial in helping our energy system deal with variable demand. They enable suppliers to design new tariffs where costs vary at different times to suit different lifestyles. The decision to select one of these time-of-use tariffs remains yours.’
Experts have also highlighted that energy firms would be able to turn off people’s power supply at the touch of a button. They would also be able to switch customers to a pre-payment meter – where they have to top up with credit before they can use power – remotely if they don’t pay bills. But energy firms say there are rules preventing them from doing this on a whim.
Smart meters have shown that having a shower is much cheaper than having a bath.
ARE THERE ANY HEALTH RISKS?
Many readers have written to the Mail raising concerns that the radio waves produced by the meters can cause illnesses. Action groups fighting the roll-out of smart meters have claimed that the signals could cause dizziness, headaches and fatigue.
Dr Federica Lamech, a GP from Victoria in Australia where smart meters were made compulsory in 2006, looked at 92 detailed reports from patients who believed they had suffered health problems after being exposed to the gadgets.
She found the most common problems were insomnia, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive disturbances, abnormal sensations and dizziness.
She said she had suffered from ‘palpitations, chest pain, insomnia, dizziness, inability to concentrate, memory loss and fainting spells. I [later] found out it was [when] the smart meters were remotely turned on’, according to The Ecologist.
But Smart Energy GB insists these fears are unfounded. A spokesman says: ‘Smart meters are one of the safest pieces of equipment in your home. Research from Public Health England shows smart meters are not a danger to health.
‘A study carried out by PHE shows that exposure to radio waves from smart meters is one million times less than international health guideline levels and is much lower than that from other everyday devices such as mobile phones.’ But if you are worried, remember that smart meters are not mandatory. You can refuse to get one.
WILL I SAVE BY SWITCHING?
Smart meters come with a screen called an in-house display which shows how much energy you have used so far each day as a running total in pounds and pence.
It means that when you put a wash on or cook a roast dinner you can see how much your day’s total has increased and easily work out the cost of different tasks.
You can also look back at what you’ve used for the month or year so far. The idea is that by keeping an eye on these costs, you will learn to reduce your usage, benefiting the environment and your wallet.
Smart meters are also meant to deliver more accurate bills because they update your supplier with readings. This ends estimated bills, where firms often charge for more power than you really use each month and hold on to the extra cash until you demand a refund.
But the evidence suggests showing people how much their energy costs only makes a limited difference to usage. If you want a tea, learning that it costs 2.5p to boil a kettle isn’t likely to stop you.
However, it might be helpful to learn that running a bath costs up to 90p while a shower is much cheaper, at 20-30p.
BLOCK OUT COLD CALLERS WITH THESE NIFTY TRICKS
You can put an end to the blight of nuisance calls with the latest technology.
Households were bombarded with 3.9 billion of these calls and text messages last year – the equivalent of 7,420 every minute, according to communications watchdog Ofcom. To fight back, register your phone number with the Telephone Preference Service online at tpsonline.org.uk or by calling 0345 070 0707.
Once your number is on this list, it is illegal for companies to cold call you. And thanks to a rule change this month, firms chasing PPI or personal injury claims now need to have your express permission before they can call you.
But the rules don’t apply to call centres based abroad and won’t deter fraudsters who are breaking the law anyway. If you are with BT, you can sign up for BT Protect, a free service which will block calls from any number on a list of known nuisance callers.
Sky customers can sign up for its free Talk Shield service and TalkTalk offers a similar option, CallSafe.
You could also buy a TrueCall gadget, a call blocker which plugs in between your phone and the wall socket.
It also intercepts calls to request that the caller states their name before being put through. It costs about £100 from truecall.co.uk, or call 0800 0 336 330.
You can buy a phone with built-in call screening. Try a BT Decor 2600 Premium Nuisance Call Blocker for £34.99. Or download the free TPS Protect app to block nuisance calls on your smartphone.
In the MPs’ report of the £11 billion smart meter roll-out programme, they predict it will run over time and over budget, and fail to deliver big savings.
The British Infrastructure Group pointed out that the programme is set to cost every household in Britain £370, while the Government’s estimates for the cost benefits to customers have reduced.
This is because while they are installed for free in your home, the costs of the roll-out are being added to all customers’ energy bills in the background.
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In 2014, official estimates suggested that by 2020 the average annual saving on gas and electricity bills would be a modest £26. But by 2016 this had dropped to £11.
Some meters also cannot cope with customers who have two-rate tariffs that charge different peak and off-peak rates.
You may also face problems if you have solar panels, as the meters are typically unable to calculate the energy you generate and sell back to the grid. And if you live in an area with a poor phone signal your supplier may not be able to fit your home with a smart meter or, if they do, you might find it doesn’t work properly.
Some customers are also being hit with shock bills after their smart meter is installed. In the long-run it is hoped the meters will stop suppliers hitting households with huge backdated bills.
But in the short-term it is making the issue worse as many were once paying estimated bills.
When a smart meter is installed a reading of the past meter has to be taken to calculate the energy used up until that point. If they have used more than they have paid for, this will result in a back bill for the difference. This is typically £1,160.
Citizens Advice saw a doubling of complaints about back bills relating to smart meters in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.
In their report the MPs say: ‘Customers who agreed to install a smart meter on the basis it will save money have found themselves struggling to suddenly pay significant sums. As some suppliers demand immediate repayment in full, consumers have even been driven into debt.’
Smart Energy GB says: ‘Our research shows more than eight in ten people with smart meters are taking at least one step to reduce energy use. You could save an average of two per cent each year – enough to power your home for free for a week.’
DON’T LET YOUR METER GO DUMB
One of the biggest gripes that customers have with smart meters is that more than half of the models currently being installed go ‘dumb’ if you switch supplier. They may no longer show you the cost of your energy usage minute by minute, nor send automatic readings to your supplier. You’ll have to go back to reading the meters manually.
The worry is that this will put customers off switching regularly. Failing to move to the lowest tariff on the market each year typically costs customers around £300, according to Ofgem figures.
This flaw in the first generation of smart meters, known as SMETS I, has been fixed in the newer SMETS II, yet suppliers are still putting the outdated technology into homes.
The deadline for suppliers to stop installing the old meters has been put back to January 2019.
If you decide you want to go back to an analogue meter, some suppliers will charge up to £150 to make the change.