A smart meter is an upgraded version of a traditional electricity or gas meter that can communicate wirelessly and automatically with your energy supplier. When your supplier installs one, they also give you an in-home display (IHD) - a small screen that shows your usage in monetary and kWh terms, both in real time and historically.
Smart meter installations are free - you can wait to be offered one by your supplier or request one. Each meter takes about an hour to fit, during which your power may be turned off.
So should you get a smart meter? Let’s take a look at the benefits…
Here are a few of the ways a smart meter could make your life a little easier:
- You no longer need to submit manual meter readings, so every bill should be accurate. You can choose how often the meter sends readings to your supplier, from monthly to every half hour.
- From your usage data, you can see when you use the most energy. This can help you identify high consumption devices and activities, i.e. where you could potentially make the most savings. Smart Energy GB found that 86% of people with a smart meter have been inspired to take energy saving measures.
- You can set budgets on the IHD, which will then warn you if you go over.
- If you’re on a prepayment meter, you can top up via the meter, IHD, online account or your phone, saving inconvenient trips out.
Solar and battery benefits
A smart meter pairs well with solar PV, home batteries and electric cars:
- Under the Smart Export Guarantee scheme, to get paid for any excess solar power you export to the grid, you need half hourly export monitoring. The only practical way to do this is with a smart meter.
- If you opt in to half hourly metering, you may be able to switch to a time-of-use tariff, which an increasing number of suppliers are offering. These tariffs may offer cheaper overnight rates for charging an EV, or tiered pricing which you can sync with a battery to charge off-peak, use peak.
- Once you’re receiving SEG payments, your energy supplier should provide you with export data in your online account. Comparing this with generation data from your inverter, you can track how much solar energy you’re using vs exporting (which could provoke you to find ways to use more at home).
Smart meters also offer potential improvements to the national electricity transmission and distribution systems:
- Operators can identify and respond more quickly to power outages.
- With more granular data, operators can balance supply and demand more efficiently. They can also draw on more local and renewable energy generators, saving wasted energy and reducing emissions.
- All this ultimately makes the system more efficient and therefore cheaper to maintain, which could help to reduce bills in the long run.
Potential downsides of smart meters
It’s only fair to address some of the most common criticisms levelled against smart meters:
- Smart meters don’t automatically save you money - they just make it easier to understand your usage, which can in turn help you find savings.
- Can you switch supplier with a smart meter? First generation (SMETS1) smart meters - mostly installed before 2019 - can ‘go dumb’ if you switch supplier. This is a pain, as it means you lose smart functionality and have to go back to manual meter readings. Work is underway, however, to remotely return these older meters to the smart network by the end of 2022.
- Is your data secure? Smart meters only measure energy usage; they don’t store or transmit any personal or banking details. Data is sent over a bespoke, secure network and you control how often readings are sent to your supplier. Energy suppliers can only use smart meter data to calculate your bill; if they want to use it for marketing or third party purposes, they need your permission.
- Time-of-use tariffs include higher priced peak periods as well as lower priced off-peak periods. This could mean you end up paying more if you can’t shift your usage to off-peak times. But time-of-use tariffs are neither mainstream nor mandatory, and it’s unlikely that suppliers would ever be allowed to force you onto one.
- Does the smart network cover rural locations? Second generation (SMETS2) smart meters communicate over a bespoke network (not the mobile phone network), which is due to cover over 99.25% of Britain by the end of the rollout. Upgraded or replaced first generation meters will join this network.
- Are there any radiation risks? Radio wave exposure from smart meters is lower than that from mobile phones or wifi. Public Health England concluded that smart meters are safe and pose no risk to public health.
- The smart meter rollout costs money, which is funded via our energy bills. You still pay for this, however, whether you accept a meter upgrade or not.
- While accepting a smart meter is optional, in the future they will likely become the default as traditional meters fall out of production.
The smart meter rollout
The national rollout of smart meters has been beset with delays and issues since it began in earnest 10 years ago. By the end of last year, only 44% of electricity meters in the UK were smart (and operating as such):
Data source: BEIS.
A further 7% were smart meters that had ‘gone dumb’. All these are due to be remotely upgraded by the Data Communications Company by the end of the year, so they can connect to the central system and remain smart if you switch supplier.
The current deadline for the smart meter rollout is the end of 2025, five years later than originally planned. Energy suppliers have targets to hit for the number of smart meter installations they must offer, while it remains your choice whether to accept or not. But as we’ve seen, there are many benefits to taking the upgrade!