Can We Really Trust Electricity Smart Meters?
I first started writing about Smart Meters back in 2011 during the rollout in Victoria. Back then, a real storm was being whipped up by mainstream media.
- "Smart meters will rip you off."
- "Smart meters will over-charge you."
- One smart meter installation even allegedly electrocuted a woman.
Fast forward to now and many people are still worried about smart electricity meters. New concerns include the health impacts of 5G or EMF radiation (for which there is no evidence).
The problem is not the smart meters, but rather that they:
- Are effectively forced onto customers with no explanation.
- Are an unknown grey-box widget to most people.
- Result in complex tariffs making your electricity bill even harder to understand.
In this post, I'd like to consider some of the issues (and benefits of) the electricity meters themselves. And most importantly, how you can take back control of the situation.
What is a Smart Meter Anyway?
Smart meters can incorporate all kinds of features such as:
- interval metering (ie. how much power is used and at what time),
- remote communication of meter readings,
- logging multiple channels of data (including solar power generation and export),
- remote disconnection or restoration of power to your property,
- automated notification to your electricity distributor when the power goes out.
Most of the digital 'smart meters' initially installed in Australia were actually quite 'dumb.' Many smart-looking electricity meters are just digital interval meters. Unlike old mechanical meters (which many homes still have) these meters can record how much you use and at what time.
Ausgrid in NSW provides a useful summary which I have included here:
"Accumulation meters only keep track of the total electricity usage. This means you are charged the same amount for the electricity you use, regardless of when you use it." These dial-face meters are actually really tricky to read. But they do not have to be of the mechanical variety. Our range of electrical sub-meters are examples of easy-to-read digital accumulation meters.
"Interval meters record how much electricity is used every 30 minutes. This means you can have different electricity rates for usage at different times of the day... To read an interval meter the meter reader attaches an optical probe to the meter and downloads the 30-minute interval data into a handheld computer."
"Smart meters are remotely read by your retailers appointed metering data provider, these meters record your energy in the same way as interval meters, that is, recording how much electricity is used every 30 minutes."
You Don't Own Your Electricity Meter
Amongst all the early discussion people were vying to protect 'their' meter.
"An old man in Ringwood has threatened to set his dogs on installers, and another more benign bloke wants to turn the garden hose on them."
- Neil Mitchell, Herald Sun, February 2011.
The problem here is that you don't own your smart electricity meter. Even if you paid for it in one way or another, you don't own it. For example, here's the exact wording in my electricity contract with Origin Energy:
"You acknowledge that [the] meter is owned by a third party (generally your Distributor, Meter Service Provider or us) and title will not pass to you at any time."
- Origin Energy 'Agreement Terms' February 2019.
Smart Meter Issues - Who To Contact
In the 2017 'Power of Choice' reforms who is ultimately responsible for your meter changed. Before these reforms, the electricity network ('poles & wires') companies were in charge of metering. Now, it is the electricity retailers (the utility who bills you). Their responsibilities include:
- Installation of smart metering equipment,
- Meter reading of smart meters,
- Replacement of non-compliant meters.
You can't choose your electricity network provider: they are 'regulated monopolies'. If we didn't have this then we'd have the situation experienced in New York in the early days of electricity. Back then, Thomas Edison and others ran competing poles-and-wires to their respective customers. Now that would be a mess!
However, you can choose your electricity retailer. And herein lies the reason why they are now responsible for metering: competition. This should lead to more innovative and cost-effective metering options for customers. Don't hold your breath though, it may take a while.
Smart Meter 'Time of Use' Tariffs
In most cases, the implementation of smart metering is coupled with a new tariff structure. These tariffs are known as Time of Use or TOU tariffs. They more closely reflect the real costs of supplying electricity. Typically, there are two or three tariffs.
In New South Wales, the peak, shoulder and off-peak tariffs are quite complex. The smart meter tariffs vary by time of day, time of the week, and time of year. This is best explained in the following graphic.
Smart meter electricity customers in NSW now have to contend with tariffs that also change by the season.
In Victoria, there tends to just be two tariffs in place. Off-peak for overnight (11pm to 7am) and all day on the weekends. Then peak for during the day (7am to 11pm).
In South East Queensland, peak rates are charged from 4pm to 8pm on weekdays. Off-peak applies to 10pm to 7am on weekdays, and shoulder rates apply at all other times.
How to Save Money with a Smart Meter
Contrary to popular belief, smart meters can actually help save you money.
As an example, in NSW the peak tariff is much more expensive than old rates, but it's only in place for less than 20% of the time. The shoulder and off-peak rates are cheaper than your old rates and can, therefore, lead to big savings on your electricity bill.
This does not mean that you have to walk around in the cold and dark during 'peak times'. The following simple changes will go a long way to reducing your bills:
- Use a power meter and energy monitor to uncover when you use electricity.
- Upgrade all of your lights to LED.
- Use more sensible (ie. lower input power) heating & cooling solutions.
- Use timers and controllers to ensure big energy guzzlers are not on at peak times.
- Upgrade your hot water system to one like this that is both low-power and has a timer.
How Much Do Smart Meters Cost?
Victoria was the first state to roll out smart meters. The enormous cost of the program was the source of much of the controversy around smart meters. The Australian Energy Regular proposed a multi-year recovery of the implementation costs (link).
Smart meter costs by Victorian electricity network area.
|Electricity Network Area||2011 to 2015 Total Cost|
|United Energy Distribution||$541|
|Jemena Electricity Networks||$780|
The above costs were for the average small customer with a single phase meter (rounded to the nearest dollar).
In summary smart meters cost around $500 to install. For retail customers, this cost is typically worn by the retailers and rolled into other charges. You may have to pay upfront for a smart meter if you have recently had solar power installed, or if you are building a new home.
For some business customers, the metering cost component on their bill far exceeds these amounts. Whether that is justified or not, I do not know.
Accessing Data From Your Smart Meter
A key potential benefit of smart meters is that they record usage information every 30 minutes or less. This data is theoretically very useful to assess your household's energy consumption.
In reality, the data is not readily accessible to most customers.
In the worst case, you can request the interval meter data from your retailer. They'll (hopefully) email you the information in a massive spreadsheet which you may, or may not, be able to interpret! As clunky as this is, it can be useful when doing a one-time analysis of past electricity usage.
In the best case, you can log-in to an online portal provided by your retailer. My experience with these portals shows they have limited utility. They are often slow to update (24-hour time lag) and/or difficult to use. It's hardly 'real-time' energy monitoring.
This is why we still recommend a wireless energy monitor to track your electricity usage.
Still Don't Trust Your Smart Meter?
People are quick to blame their electricity meter for various issues. Metering can be the cause of some issues, it's just very rarely the case.
I recommend the following to all customers with a smart meter:
- Read and understand your electricity bill. This can help rule out basic billing issues, as opposed to metering issues.
- Install your own energy monitoring device. These allow you to keep track of your usage, in real-time.
- Find out what typically causes high electricity bills. Hint: it's not usually the smart meter.
- Take your own manual meter readings off the smart meter display. This gives you a written record of usage that is separate to your electricity retailer.
- Install energy-efficient lighting and appliances including those I outlined above.