Smart electricity meters

Over the last few years ESB Networks – the electricity network operator – has begun the rollout of Smart Meters. The idea is that every home and business in Ireland will eventually get a smart electricity meter.

What are smart meters?

Smart meters take regular usage readings throughout the day – I believe it’s every 30 minutes. The readings are then automatically uploaded to ESB Networks (the electricity network operator) who then share that data with the energy company that you buy your electricity from. The meters all have 2G mobile data connections (presumably using GPRS data) to upload the readings.

The idea is that smart meters will make electricity billing more accurate (no more estimated usage bills), less expensive (they don’t have to pay for someone to come and read the meter), and allows for something called time-of-use tariffs.

Time-of-use tariffs – often referred to as ‘smart meter tariffs’ – allow for different energy prices at different times of the day. So, for instance, your energy provider might charge less per unit of electricity in the middle of the night when demand is low, and more during the early evening when demand is typically high. The idea being that consumers can then make informed decisions about when they consume electricity, and maybe save themselves a few euros.

Typically energy companies will have:

  • A peak rate – from 5pm to 7pm – when electricity is in high demand for heating and cooking
  • A day rate – from 8am to 11pm (excluding the peak rate) – when electricity is in moderate demand
  • A night rate – from 11pm to 8am – when electricity is at low demand

The peak rate energy prices are the most expensive, and the night rate is the cheapest. And people might be able to save some money by transferring their energy usage away from peak rates and towards day or night rates.

Some examples of shifting energy usage to other times of the day might be:

  • Cooking dinner using a slow cooker during the day instead of in an electric oven during peak hours
  • Running the dishwasher or washing machine at night
  • Programming your electric car charger to only use night rate electricity

Of course the idea of time-based electricity price differences is not new. We’ve had the concept of day and night (or NightSave) meters for a long time, which were installed for people using storage heaters. However to get avail of these tariffs required the installation of a special two-dial mechanical meter (one dial for daytime usage and one for nighttime usage). And these day and night meters do not update with daylight savings time changes, so the day and night times are different in the summer and winter.

Making informed decisions

Being a stats nerd I love the idea of being able to see a bunch of numbers and make an informed decisions about how to save energy and/or money. And so when my smart meter was installed a few months ago I was excited to see the numbers.

However, I’ve recently found out that my electricity provider won’t give access to this information until I’ve signed up to one of their smart meter tariffs. So I can’t make an informed decision ahead of time about which tariff to pick – I suppose I need to make a guess about how much electricity I use at different times of the day.

And it doesn’t help that different electricity suppliers have a bewildering array of confusing offers, such as:

  • Discounted or free daytime electricity at the weekends
  • An additional ‘Night Boost’ rate of even cheaper electricity between 2am and 4am
  • Special rates for charging electric cars at night
  • Different prices for different seasons of the year

There’s a couple of good price comparison websites out there that help consumers make decisions about the best supplier and plan to go with – and it’s definitely a good idea to shop around every year to make sure you get the best prices, because often discounts expire after 12 months!

The problem is that the comparison websites can only make generalised guesses about the best energy plan for you. You can type in how much you spend on electricity, or how much you use, over a 2 month period, but it doesn’t get any more granular that that.

Open access to usage data

I would love to see open access to the usage data collected by smart meters.

Perhaps ESB Networks could provide a facility for consumers to be able to temporarily share their usage data with the price comparison sites in order to get a better indication of the correct plan they should be on based on their recent usage.

People could also share their data with services that could suggest potential lifestyle changes that could save people money. This service could highlight times during the week when usage is high – for instance while people are cooking their Sunday dinner – and allow people to make informed decisions to maybe change their usage behaviour.