Consumers unaware of smart meters ahead of EU-wide roll-out

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A study commissioned by the United Kingdom's Department of Energy and Climate Change recently revealed that over half the population is unaware of the existence of smart meters.

Over 51% of the 2,396 energy bill-payers interviewed by the Ipsos Mori research team in Britain said they had never heard of smart meters. Only one in four said they knew at least a fair amount about the meters, 24% had heard of them but knew nothing about them, while just 2% claimed to know "a great deal". 

The study comes amid plans to roll-out smart meters in all of Britain's 30 million households from 2014 to 2019.

Doubts over roll out

But even figures in the smart metering industry say this objective might be difficult to attain.

Mark England, chief executive of Sentec, a supplier of smart grid and metering technology said in March 2012 that smart meter deployment in 65% of UK homes by 2015 was not possible. 

“The deregulated structure of the UK market is uniquely challenging for rapid and co-ordinated action in a large scale initiative like this," England said in a statement. “There is a great deal of work still to do to finalise the technical and regulatory framework for smart metering.”

The EU's 27 member states are expected to present their national cost-benefit analyses on the deployment of smart meters to the European Commission before 3 September. These are expected to result in 80% of European consumers being equipped with intelligent metering systems by 2020.

The roll-out of smart meters could potentially transform the way energy markets operate in the EU, with customers expected to become more actively engaged in controlling their energy consumption, with the help of demand-response systems. 

Smart meters display household's energy consumption in real-time, giving users the possibility to monitor fluctuations in their energy consumption both locally and remotely – through wireless systems, the internet and smart phones.

Since households are responsible for 40% of total energy consumption, the European Commission believes smart meters will be a key element in reducing energy demand and cutting associated carbon-dioxide emissions.

Who benefits?

While these objectives justify a massive roll-out of smart meters, consumer groups worry that households will not benefit much as efficiency gains are likely to be offset by the rising cost of energy.

“Smart meters might be beneficial to some consumers, but we certainly have doubts about whether they will be beneficial to all consumers,” Johannes Kleis of European consumer group BEUC told EurActiv. He says energy suppliers “could be the ones taking all the benefits” from the EU-wide deployment of smart-metering systems.

If the national cost-benefit analysis due later this year find them beneficial, smart meters could become compulsory across Europe. But low-income households will not be able to reduce their consumption much further, warns Monika Stajnarova, an expert on smart meters at BEUC, because they are already using energy for very basic needs.

“We are against the mandatory roll out [of smart meters] for the whole population - some consumers will pay for the smart meter all the while not being able to benefit from them. Consumers need to be given the choice,” Stajnarova told EurActiv.

The Brattle Group consulting firm estimated in a 2009 study that rolling out smart meters across European households would cost €51 billion by 2020. With energy savings estimated at €26 billion to €41 billion, this would leave a margin of €10 billion to €25 billion between benefits and costs.

Positions: 
John L. Harris, vice-president of smart metering systems supplier Landis+Gyr said he agrees with several of the DECC study’s findings. 
 
"Prior to the rollout, many consumers have little, if any, knowledge of the technology. Even if they have heard of smart metering at all, they usually have only a vague idea of what the technology does and what benefits it can bring," Harris said.
 
"This changes, however, once consumers have smart meters in their homes. Many of the utilities report that customer satisfaction goes through the roof. Consumers may not know much about smart metering when it is first mentioned, but once they have it, they love it. In order to achieve such a response, however, extensive consumer education and information campaigns are essential to make people familiar with the technology before it is put into their homes, and to correct any misunderstandings," he added.
Timeline: 
  • 3 Sept. 2012: Deadline for EU countries to submit their cost-benefit analysis.
  • End of 2012: First deliverables expected for European standards on smart meters.
  • By 2020: At least 80% of consumers should be equipped with intelligent meter­ing system, if cost-benefit analyses are positive.
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