Why the smart meter rollout isn’t as eco-friendly as you think
One of the aims of putting a smart meter in every home and business in the UK by 2020 was to save energy. The plan is that if everyone can see how much energy they are using, they will make an effort to reduce their consumption. If the country uses less energy, fewer fossil fuels will be burned and carbon emissions will decrease.
It’s a noble idea, but an unworkable one, for several reasons. Replacing every old utility meter in the UK actually requires more energy than it saves. Also, because the rollout has been beset with issues, we are making this problem even worse.
Here are five reasons we believe the smart meter rollout is counterproductive from an environmental point of view.
1 – Scrapping legacy meters requires energy
For every smart meter installed, a legacy meter is removed. There was nothing wrong with the old meter, it was working perfectly. The only reason it has to go is that the Government set an arbitrary target of 2020 to finish the rollout.
What happens to these old meters, taken away before the end of their natural life? Most of the time, they are scrapped and the elements inside them recycled.
E.ON has its own recycling facility in Preston, Lancashire. When meters arrive at the facility, they are sorted and all the parts are removed. The meters’ batteries are taken out and recycled. Other recyclable materials, such as plastic and metal, are shredded down and sold on for use elsewhere.
This all sounds great, but this long recycling process uses a lot of energy. You have to power the machines that shred and melt down the materials. There are also exhaust emissions from the trucks that transport the meters to the recycling plant. And, of course, not all the contents of the meter can be recycled resulting is added landfill and pollution.
2 – Fitting the new meters uses energy and raises emissions
When an energy supplier’s engineer visits a consumer’s home to install a new smart meter, they will come in a van. This van requires fuel and also generates CO2, pumping it into the air through its exhaust fumes.
While the engineer installs the meter, they use power tools that consume electricity. They will also use power as they test the new meters.
Is this consumption truly essential to replace a meter that was working perfectly well in the first place?
3 – Manufacturing smart meters is not eco-friendly
The smart meters we are told we all need in our homes are manufactured in factories. Some are fully automated; the meters are made by robots. Some will require human input.
Unfortunately, the manufacturing process for smart meters uses materials and resources that are not environmentally friendly, including plastics and toxic chemicals. Of course, the machines used to construct the smart meters use energy too, contributing to CO2 emissions.
On top of this, China is the world leader for smart meter production. So, it’s likely that most of the meters going into our homes have been shipped over from the Far East. This requires fuel and increases CO2 emissions.
4 – Smart meters do not save enough energy to make it worthwhile
Smart meters have helped households and businesses reduce their energy consumption, saving a small amount of money into the bargain.
However, the average energy saving is only 2%. While every little helps when you are trying to be eco-friendly, 2% is hardly an earth-shattering figure. Is it really worth the extra energy use and pollution that the rollout has caused?
5 – Problems with the rollout make these problems worse
If the rollout had gone to plan, the problems we have talked about so far would still exist. However, because the implementation has encountered so many challenges, it has taken these problems and exacerbated them.
One of these issues has been with the first generation of smart meters that were installed as part of the rollout, known as SMETS1. Approximately 70% of SMETS1 meters shipped with a fault, meaning that if a customer switches their energy supplier, the meters stop communicating. This is called ‘going dumb’ and it means the customers have to submit their meter readings manually, as they did when they had their legacy meters. Around 12.5 million SMETS1 meters have been installed in homes and businesses, while at least 1 million are currently ‘dumb’.
A second generation of meters which do not go dumb are now ready for installation, called SMETS2. However, the manufacturers cannot make them quickly enough to satisfy the Government’s targets.
With the SMETS1 meters essentially obsolete, their manufacturing and installation, which we know are not eco-friendly, were a waste of time and resources. Now, a new generation of meters have to be constructed and fitted, so we have to repeat the whole environmentally-damaging process.
You also have to think about the millions of pounds that have been wasted on manufacturing and installing smart meters that do not work correctly. What other eco-friendly initiatives could energy suppliers fund with that money?
What could be done to make the smart meter rollout more eco-friendly? The right solution is to stop the whole thing altogether.
We should still replace legacy meters with smart meters because they still bring benefits to consumers. However, it should be done when the old meters reach the end of their natural lives. We replace all the meters, just not as quickly. There is no likelihood of reaching the 2020 deadline, so it doesn’t make much difference if you abandon the rollout now.
This would give the industry a chance to take a breath, make better plans and get it right this time. There would be no more unforced errors, like SMETS1 meters going dumb. We could get the supply chain and the infrastructure right before we start installing again.
Why force energy suppliers to spend money and resources to create waste and pollution, when the old meters are still working perfectly well? They could commit these resources to more eco-friendly enterprises, such as renewable energy.
Abandoning the rollout target would end a piece of unnecessary damage to the environment. The problem is that it would mean the Government admitting they made a mistake, something that they are reluctant to do. Let’s hope they can see sense and slow things down. The wider world will thank us.