When we last wrote about smart meters in 2008, we predicted they’d be great for the electricity industry, but were sceptical about the benefits for consumers. Unfortunately, we were right – they’ve saved power companies money, but most of us are yet to enjoy lower costs or increased control over our electricity use. They also remain the focus of health and privacy concerns.

What’s a smart meter?

Every home has a meter recording the amount of power used. Smart meters send your electricity usage back to your power company throughout the day, removing the need for meter readers and making your bill far more accurate compared to the old analogue models. It’s estimated that more than 1.2 million have been installed over the past 10 years, meaning they now outnumber the old meters.

If you haven’t got one already, chances are you will soon – most meters have certification that expires in 2015, and many electricity retailers are using this as an opportunity to fit smart meters rather than re-certifying existing ones.

Power companies like them because they don’t have to pay meter readers and they make billing easier and more accurate. In theory, they could benefit consumers by offering real-time information about energy use, and enabling the use of “cost-reflective tariffs”, allowing you to save money by shifting your power use to cheaper off-peak periods.

There are environmental benefits as well. During periods of high demand, such as cold winter nights, our renewable sources like hydro or geothermal can’t generate enough electricity, so we rely on fossil fuel-burning power plants to cover the shortfall. Spreading our power consumption more evenly throughout the day means we could reduce our reliance on these unsustainable sources of energy.

Unfortunately for consumers, the majority of installed smart meters are basic models that only send data back to the power companies and display aggregate energy use (just like the old analogue meters), which means consumers miss out on many of the potential benefits like cost-reflective tariffs and real-time monitoring of their power use.

Health and safety

Smart meters have been in the cross hairs of some groups both here and overseas, often relating to claims the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation they use to communicate is unsafe.

This type of radiation is also emitted by phones, microwaves and TV towers, and while it can’t damage living cells, it can heat body tissue. As a result, New Zealand set maximum exposure limits for electromagnetic radiation.

A 2012 study by the University of Canterbury’s Electric Power Engineering Centre found standing a metre away from a smart meter broadcasting at full power exposes you to less than 35 percent of the maximum limit for electromagnetic radiation. But in practice, smart meters are usually located in out-of-the-way areas of the home, and only transmit for a maximum of a few minutes per day, so your exposure will usually be far lower than that.

However, some people report adverse reactions, including headaches, fatigue and skin rashes, to levels of electromagnetic radiation well below the maximum exposure limit. This is known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). Sufferers often cite Wi-Fi, phone towers and high voltage power lines as aggravating their EHS.

Professor Keith Petrie, an expert in Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland, says the cause of EHS is imagined, but the effects are very real.

“Negative expectations cause these symptoms and simply telling people that something in the environment is harmful will cause symptoms and health complaints,” Professor Petrie said.

This year, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks assessed more than 700 recent studies. They found no association between exposure to electromagnetic fields below existing limits and adverse health effects.

If you believe electromagnetic fields are affecting your health, we recommend assessing your home and workplace for factors that could be causing the problems, such as poor lighting or excessive noise. If problems persist, talk to your doctor. They may be able to identify and treat any underlying conditions that may be causing the symptoms.

Big brother

Constant monitoring of your electricity use raises the question: what does your power company do with the huge amounts of private data it collects?

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner received a number of complaints this year about that very thing, and while none were upheld, the commissioner raised concerns about how power companies were looking after this information.

We share these concerns and think power companies need to clarify in their privacy policies how consumers’ data is handled and protected.

An opportunity squandered?

In 2009, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released a report expressing concern the rollout of smart meters was being entirely driven by electricity retailers, with no government control.

The commissioner recommended the government ensure all meters were really “smart”, by requiring them to have home area network (HAN) communication functionality, and in-home displays (IHDs). HANs allow meters to interact with smart appliances, for example switching on your dryer in the middle of the night when power’s cheapest. IHDs show real-time energy use – allowing you to identify power-hungry appliances and shift their use to off-peak times.

However, the Electricity Commission (now the Electricity Authority) presented a report to the then Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee advising against regulation. The report concluded the costs of adding HAN and IHD would exceed any economic and environmental benefits. The Environment Commissioner raised concerns over the methodology used in the cost-benefit analysis. However, the minister accepted the report’s advice.

As a result, electricity retailers installed meters capable of recording your power use, but that’s about it – most of us are stuck with basic models that can’t do much else. Some energy companies don’t see this as a problem, and say the industry is moving toward control and monitoring through the internet via online tools.

In a market where innovation is hard to come by, there are a few retailers challenging the status quo. Flick Electric, which launched last year, developed technology allowing customers with any type of smart meter to take advantage of electricity spot prices and shift their usage to when power’s cheapest. This is a good start, but Flick isn’t offering meters with home area network functionality or in-home displays – you have to log on to a personalised online portal to check your power use and spot prices.

The problem with online energy monitoring programmes is they’re usually opt-in, and require users to log in to the system to access energy use reports. We think a smart meter with an in-home display provides more accessible real-time feedback for consumers, rather than the half-hourly information provided by most online tools.

Your rights

There’s no law requiring you to have a smart meter. However, most retail power contracts say the provider can replace the meter at its discretion.

If you don’t want a smart meter, ask if you can opt out, or look at switching to another provider. But bear in mind, many meters’ certification expires this year so most, if not all, retailers will be opting to install smart meters.

You won’t have to pay for a smart meter if your provider’s rolling them out. However, you may be charged if your provider doesn’t require them but you’d like to have one fitted to make your billing more accurate.

If you’ve got a faulty meter, smart or otherwise, the meter’s owner is responsible for repairing it. The majority of meters are owned by the lines company, the electricity retailer or an independent meter company.

Some consumers report higher bills after switching to a smart meter. This can happen if your old analogue meter was under-recording your usage, or your estimated usage from occasional meter reading was too low. Contact your energy provider if your new bills seem high – but beware, if they don’t find any faults you could be liable for the cost of the inspection.

If you’ve got a dispute with your power company over a smart meter, we recommend contacting the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner.

We say

• New Zealand missed a golden opportunity to give consumers more control over their power use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In our view, the failure to regulate the rollout of smart meters was a mistake.

• Power retailers need to be clear and accountable on how they handle and protect the personal data collected by smart meters. Companies’ privacy policies should include information on how they use smart meter data.

by George Block