Friday, 2 March 2018

Smart meters, Blockchain, Bitcoin and all that..

The UK’s very ambitious £11bn Smart Metering Implementation Programme (SMIP), aimed to install smart meters in all the UKs 26 million homes by 2020.  Smart meters send energy suppliers data on consumer energy usage automatically and wirelessly each month, so consumers get accurate bills instead of estimated ones. That also allows consumers to monitor their energy use in real time. Some versions provide a separate Smart Energy Display (SED).  The expectation was that this would make consumers aware of their energy use, so that they might then reduce it- and their energy bills. Suppliers would benefit by not having to employ meter readers and by having full data on their customers’ energy use, which could aid system planning and cut costs.

However, all has not gone well with the smart meter roll out. As with any advanced IT system, initial bugs and delays were to be expected, but the smart meter programme seems to have attracted more than its fair share and this has led to much adverse media coverage. Some reported specific problems: and

Others focused on the cost, which is was claimed would eventually be passed through to bills: and
The response from energy professionals was sometimes also very critical:  and  Also, more colourfully:
And the Consumers Association’s Which was very pessimistic about likely roll out rates:

Nevertheless, the government stoutly defended the programme, despite its problems:
Moreover, survey work has found that, once installed, the meters were welcomed by users:

However, the most recent study of smart grid programme, by researchers at Sussex University, points to lack of consumer engagement, insufficient information, and inadequate attention to vulnerability which it says are key reasons for the slow roll out, this despite the £100m marketing campaign. It notes that there has been consumer apathy and confusion, especially in the case of vulnerable people, with uncertainties about the benefits remaining. It notes that, at one time, it was said that the programme might cut energy use by 5-15%. But now 1-3% is seen as more realistic, with, it seems, mandatory adoption and some targets abandoned: It should be noted that three academics at UCL didn’t agree with the Sussex study: see this exchange of views:

The way ahead

There certainly have been problems with the first generation SMETS1 meters. By December  2016 some 330,000 smart meters were operating in ‘dumb’ mode - not operating as smart meters - and by March 2017, that figure had risen to 460,000, involving a cost of between £30 million and £50 million. A major issue was, it seems, that the meters would not work if consumers switched suppliers. Writing in the Times (25/2/18), Oxford Prof. Dietr Helm said that showed the fatal flaw in the way the roll out was set up- responsibility for it should   have been given to the National Grid, not to the individual energy supply companies, who, naturally enough,  each promoted their own systems. So changing suppliers was hard.  That is evidently being at least partly remedied with an update, the SMETS2, which is more flexible.  Though none of the meters as yet will switch to the cheapest tariff automatically!  Much less oversee peer to peer power trading. Though later maybe: And beyond that- what about tying in EV Vehicle- to-Grid charging?

Smart meters are being looked at elsewhere in the EU, although France has cut its goal of providing smart meters to 95% of power customers by 2020 to 90% and Germany has been having second thoughts about its proposed programme, with there being concerns about privacy and the high cost. GTM says the EU as whole may miss its 2020 target of  80% rollout by 38 million installations: - gs.V9KM87Q
But it also says there will be 1 billion installed globally by 2021, led by Asia. Well maybe. Within the EU, it has been argued that, rather than just install relatively simple ‘readout’ systems, as in the UK, it would be better to wait for a more sophisticated smart grid system, with, for example, meters that could respond interactively to pricing signals- and rival offers!

With the whole energy system undergoing major changes, it does seem odd just to install very simple readout-only meters. In theory they can perhaps be upgraded to add some extra functionality, but it seems that they will have to be replaced when and if we move to a full smart grid system. The advent of peer-to-pear trading of power from domestic and independent PV solar systems, and electronic payment systems like Solar Coin, also indicate the need for more flexible and smarter systems. Although electronic credit exchange systems do open up new issues, as indicated by the recent Bitcoin saga.

Bitcoin limits

The Bitcoin e-banking ledger system use ‘block chain’ electronic exchanges to transfer credits, and it has been booming as people seek an alternative to conventional banking and speculate on its growth. The same idea has been used for solar energy trading: and for other green power management systems: and  There does seem to be some enthusiasm:

However, it has issues- its very high energy use. That seems to be inherent in the concept. For security, every transaction is relayed to every user and has to be dis-encrypted by each, so that, as the numbers involved grow, so do the transactions and dis-encryption activities, with increasing amounts of energy being use to power the ever more complex and interactive encryption process. There have been fears that it could soon get out of control:  and Also It already seems likely to absorb all of Iceland’s green power, if unchecked! It certainly is very energy intensive, though putting numbers to it is evidently hard: And what may matter more is its utility or otherwise:

However, although e-money transfer has its attractions, and might help with local energy project peer to peer payments, it would surely be crazy to use renewable energy for a wasteful system like this- that would soak up any energy gains and more.  See this analysis: And this assessment: There may be some better ideas: But is this really sensible approach?

Some say the whole idea is basically silly:  Put simply, as a blog from the Berekely Energy Institute put it, a banknote uses about 0.8 watt-hours per transaction. A credit card transaction uses about 7 watt hours per transaction. So, about eight times more energy than the cash transaction. A Bitcoin transaction uses 100,000 watt-hours per transaction. That is 100kWh, so about the equivalent of 115,000 cash transaction.

So maybe, as energy bills mount, it will just fade out. Or be replaced by something better e.g.   See this exposition- as with all money and bartering, it’s all about trust: However, there are also other incentives: illegal money laundering and avoidance of international trade embargoes for example. Quite a minefield, with big money involved and lots of uncertainly, even leaving aside the technological complexity of Bit Coin mining!  Maybe best left alone. Though this isn’t a field we have any expertise in, so we’d welcome alternative views! Here’s one:

And from a very different perspective, some claim that some types of RF intense wi-fi/ radio links, which you may use for cyber-money exchanges, and are also used for smart meters and much else, may be dangerous for some people:   But that’s another story! See Renew On Line 130 and for a EM/RF overview:

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