Why smart meters will need to become smarter

Why smart meters will need to become smarter

Smart meters must evolve to catch up with technology and avoid becoming obsolete. How will it happen and who’s paying for it?

It’s fair to say that the UK’s smart meter rollout has had its fair share of problems. Technical hitches, budget issues and a global pandemic have all derailed the project at times. However, in 2022, things are starting to get back on track. Installation numbers are high again and many consumers are beginning to reap the rewards that smart meters can bring.

This is all excellent news, but we can’t celebrate yet, as another challenge is looming on the horizon. A change to the UK’s technological landscape has the potential to make the smart meters in our homes worthless. To mitigate this, we need to find a fix for current meters and adapt the way we manufacture new meters. 

In this article, we’ll look at this challenge in more detail and see how the industry plans to solve it. Let’s go.

What’s the problem with smart meters?

The issue with the current set of smart meters functioning in consumers’ homes is that they are not future-proof. Most smart meters rely on 2G and 3G technology to communicate with the UK’s smart meter network. When they were initially manufactured, 2G and 3G were the prevalent technologies. 

However, today, we have 4G and 5G – and the Government wants to turn off the UK’s 2G and 3G networks by the end of 2033. This means that smart meters that don’t have 4G or 5G capability will not be able to transmit information and become obsolete. 

After a long and arduous smart meter rollout (which still hasn’t been completed), to see all the hard work come to nothing would be terrible. Fortunately, the industry is already working on a fix.

How to fix potentially obsolete smart meters

The good news is that, according to industry experts, not all currently installed smart meters will need to be replaced. This is because, in most cases, a smart meter installation consists of:

  • Static meters – one for gas and one for electricity
  • A display screen – where you can see how much energy you use in real-time
  • A communications hub – to link the two together

The critical component here is the communications hub that transmits data to the UK smart meter network. It should be possible to get smart meters functioning on 4G or 5G simply by replacing the communications hub. There should be no need to replace the static meters. They can remain where they are.

This will make fixing the problem much faster than replacing the entire installation. It could also make it less costly, although budget is still a major concern.

Who will pay for it?

According to industry estimates, the cost of replacing potentially obsolete smart meters could reach £2 billion. The Data Communications Company (DCC) is expected to be in charge of replacing meters, although they may contract the physical work out to external companies. The question is, where will the money come from?

It’s reasonable to expect that, as with the rest of the UK smart meter rollout, the industry will pay the upfront costs, but will ultimately recoup it from their customers. At a time when energy costs are already at a record high, this will not be good news for the consumer. Smart meters are supposed to save consumers money (as well as help save energy for the sake of the planet), so an extra cost for something that is not their fault will not be well-received.

A new hub

So far, we’ve only talked about replacing existing smart meters that may potentially become obsolete. However, facing this challenge requires a two-pronged attack, as we need to create new smart meter technology that will continue to function after 2033.

In 2023, the DCC will introduce a new single-band communication hub that is 4G enabled and can manage the post-2033 transition. They have decided not to skip to 5G as most of the UK cannot get 5G yet, and we need to have full coverage now. A dual-band 4G-enabled communications hub is slated for 2024.

There will also be a new, upgraded Data Services Platform (DSP) to deliver digital messages and remote software upgrades. This new platform will be equipped with the latest cybersecurity defences and use APIs to help energy suppliers manage their service. This upgrade should ensure that the network will be up to standard for at least 20 years.

Will it work?

The impending switch-off of the UK’s 2G and 3G networks certainly cause a problem for the smart meter industry. It is a problem that has come at a particularly unwelcome time, just as the smart meter rollout is getting back on track after COVID-19. 

However, industry experts appear quite confident that the problem is fixable. If their estimates are correct, replacing communications hubs should be a relatively smooth process. It will be costly to manufacture and install new hubs, but unfortunately, nothing comes for free. However, smart meters are central to the nation’s energy-saving strategy, so they will find the money from somewhere.

If you’re thinking of getting a smart meter installed in your home or at your business, make sure you consider its connectivity. Then, you’ll be able to reap the rewards that smart meters bring for many years to come.

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