Smart meters

Have we missed a golden opportunity to make our electricity network really smart?

Power on/off switch, electrical cables, power plug

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 Utilities Disputes.

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

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Member comments

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Jonathan C.
04 Nov 2019
Where's the Independence?

Disappointed you have quoted a psychologist in regard to potential health effects. This is a clear attempt to evade the issue and patronise those with concerns 'it is all in their heads'. Would like to see a fair and balanced, comprehensive and *independent* review of international research from consumer. Your current position is clearly influenced by the industry forces.

Kathy S.
10 Jul 2019
Fronius Smart Meter

We have had solar panels installed on our roof. Harrison’s who sold them to us said that if we bought the Smart Metre for $800-$900 and had it installed on our switch board this would help us to know when to use our appliances to get maximum use from the solar panels. We can’t find any information on how to use the Smart Meter. Can you help us please.

Consumer staff
11 Jul 2019
Fronius Smart Meter

Hi Kathy,
Our understanding of the Fronius Smart Meter is that it gives you the real time output of your solar panels and household usage. You can view a demonstration of how it works on their website - www.solarweb.com
If you have the smart meter installed, you can access this page from your phone or computer to see how the system is performing. I'd only recommend getting it installed if you think you'll be keeping on top of things and using the website daily. Otherwise, you can just schedule your appliances to run from about 10AM-3PM and assume that the Panels are taking the bulk of the load.
Kind regards
James le Page - Technical Writer

Sandra D.
04 Jul 2016
Smart meters are pointless for consumers

The online smart meters are not useful for monitoring usage - I am with Flick and the data is not available for at least 2 days. Was with Mercury and they were the same. That is a fundamental issue and rules them out as usable for demand management.
Also 2 days is too long to remember what was happening as well as obviously too long for making any live decisions on power usage.
Another issue, Flick have a very basic smart phone app which is supposed to tell you when the price is high, but the high/spike price notifications are not working on that - they did used to work.

Quite frankly the solution is to bypass the power companies and implement load management yourself. I've just installed heat pumps which are controllable via the (free) very simple IFTTT cloud based automation service.

The internet connectivity is provided by these modules: https://www.intesishome.com/ which are independent of manufacturer and compatible with many heat pumps.

That approach is the future, every power hungry appliance I buy will have this connectivity now. Combine with solar its a no brainer. Forget the power companies, they have had their chance and haven't delivered.

The single advantage of the smart meter is that the meter reader does not need to come to the house. Which is only important if you have a dog. Thats it.

Lynne H.
17 Mar 2016
Smart Meter Installed Without Notification

A smart meter has just been installed on our house without any prior communication from Contact. I've always been against the concept (the privacy issue) and would like to know if I can get it removed.
I've spoken with the Contact Call Centre people who agreed (after searching their records) that no, I hadn't been sent a letter detailing the installation time frame and whether or not I agreed to it.
My partner answered the door when the technician called, was briefly told that a smart meter was being installed and that I would have received a letter about it.
Long story short - my partner didn't contact me to yay or nay the installation (we own equal shares in the house but I'm the electricity account holder/payer) and the meter was in the final stages of being fitted when I arrived on the scene.
I queried the guy installing it about why I hadn't been notified and he said I should have had a letter. We discussed the fact that I hadn't and he told me that if nobody had answered the door he would have still installed it (Power Company policy apparantly).
Where do I stand here as the account holder? Uninformed consent was given by my partner (who hasn't been authorised to operate my account) to install a smart meter that Contact Energy didn't even write to me about. I never had a chance to say yes or no to it.
Apparantly you have the option to say "No" before they swap the meters.
Contact told me one of their servicemen would phone me to arrange removing the communications chip from the new meter but it's the 2nd day now and (funnily enough) no phone call yet.
I'd prefer to get the analogue meter back if possible.
Cheers
Lynne

Previous member
17 Mar 2016
re: Smart Meter Installed Without Notification

Hi Lynne,

Unfortunately, most electricity retail contracts allow energy providers to replace analogue meters with smart meters at their discretion, as long as they give due notice. The Electricity and Gas Complaints Commission (EGCC) recently released this practice note about resolving complaints with smart meters: http://www.egcomplaints.co.nz/media/288408/advanced-meters-note-for-consumers-sept-2015.pdf

I recommend contacting the EGCC if you think your retailer hasn’t followed the correct processes around installing the smart meter: http://www.egcomplaints.co.nz/contact-us.aspx

That said, if Contact do remove the communications chip from your smart meter this should resolve your privacy concerns as the meter will need to be read manually and the data they gather from this won’t be detailed enough to compromise your privacy. Another option if you’re keen to revert to an old analogue meter is to get in touch with Legacy Metering Group, who offer installation and reading of the old meters: http://legacymetering.nz/contact-us/

Regards,
George – Consumer NZ staff

Martyn M.
05 Mar 2016
Genisis has removed the hourly read out of my meter on their website

Genesis has for some reason removed the hourly feature on my usage function on their website. I queried this with them and they replied "I am sorry to say but Genesis Energy only provided hourly electricity consumption data on a trial basis. As customer feedback has been mixed, we have removed the hourly data in."
I then replied "I'm very disappointed with that decision I only feel that your hiding
something or have something more sinister coming up in the future.
Surely it doesn't cost any extra and if so surely a large company like
yours could absorb the cost considering the cost of electricity in NZ"
Their reply was "I apologise you feel this way.

I will pass your feedback onto my manager to look into. This is the best I can do for you in this situation.

If there was anything else I can help with please do not hesitate to ask."
and that is where it's finished. I never heard from the manager and to be honest was not expecting to.
This is only a minor problem but it was a function I used regularly
Martyn

All My Account will now only be able to see daily and monthly data.

Bruce H.
15 Feb 2016
smart Meter

I received a letter from my power company saying that they were going to install a new smart meter. Instead of getting a new meter I received a not to say that my power meter was too close to my gas meter and they did not change it and I was ask to phone them. This is despite the power meter being installed, connected and approved, ( gas meter was already in place) and when it failed, it was replaced.. no problem. In the following years, the meters have not moved any closer... I threw the note in the rubbish tin. There is no real benefit to me, and I am keeping someone employed...

John C.
14 Feb 2016
We are still missing the biggest opportunities

I fully agree with your claim that smart meters have saved power companies money, but most of us are yet to enjoy lower costs or increased control over our electricity use, but not quite for the reasons you state.

There are no dumb smart meters in the sense that they are not clever. All NZ smart meters can record the power consumption in half-hour intervals throughout the day and can report this information to the power retailer, provided that they are connected to a wireless network as described in the Electricity Authority pamphlet linked to your article. These meters are not designed for directly connecting to our PCs.

Enabling the power user to access this information requires

(a) the smart meter is connected to a wireless network that can communicate to the retailer on a regular basis; and

(b) the retailer sets up their website so that power consumers can access this information in downloadable and user-friendly forms.

Unfortunately in many cases, one or both of the above is still not present. In my case my smart meter in Napier cannot yet be accessed by Mercury Energy so I can’t yet see my usage patterns from the meter. The say they are planning to establish a network in Napier but no timeframe is given.

However, the biggest missed opportunity is that in general we do not have effective time-of-use charging for our electricity use. This potential is heralded in the Electricity Authority pamphlet, where it says:

“Smart meters also offer the potential for:
• retailers to offer more products that better reflect customer pricing and service requirements
– smart meters facilitate real-time pricing and greater customer control of electricity supply, for example, providing customers the opportunity to better manage their electricity cost by running appliances at times of the day when electricity prices are lower”

This is starting to happen. For example, the Flick Electric Company is offering packages where consumers can pay the spot price for energy generated plus line company and metering charges, and Mercury Energy is offering discounted rates to owners of electric cars for power consumed between 11pm and 7am. However the real benefit will only come when Transpower and line company charges are reformed into time-of-use packages where usage during peak periods is charged at a high rate to reflect the costs of their networks (which are driven by peak usage levels) and usage during off-peak periods is charged virtually nothing because the marginal cost of this usage is almost zero. These fully reformed time-of-use charges would let users manage their power usage to significantly lower their bills. Shifting energy usage away from the peak hours would also lead to huge savings in the costs of generation, transmission and distribution (potentially hundreds of millions of dollars over the whole country in the next 5-10 years). We need the lines companies to introduce economically appropriate time-of-use pricing and we need the energy retailers to transparently pass these options on to their customers.

The Electricity Authority is currently conducting a consultation on the lines (aka distribution) company pricing, which could greatly impact on the prices we pay for electricity, but we need to speak up and argue the case for time-of-use pricing or nothing will happen.

For anyone who is interested, a copy of my submission to the Electricity Authority can be downloaded from the following link.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/ysdjd44bqta94og/John%20Crook%20Consulting%20submission%20to%20Electricity%20Authority.pdf?dl=0

Andrew R.
13 Feb 2016
Getting a smart smart meter

Can I buy and get installed myself a smart smart meter?

Previous member
15 Feb 2016
re: Getting a smart smart meter

Hi Andrew,

At this stage, we’re unaware of any retailers offering retrofits of network-integrated smart meters.

Your best option for making your smart meter smarter is probably to install an electronic energy monitoring device. These allow you to connect a sensor to your incoming electricity supply, which sends power consumption data to an LCD display and/or a smartphone or computer via the cloud on more advanced models. You can then program your power tariff information to show real-time and aggregate power usage and price information.

Clever Power manufacture a range of electricity monitors under the OWL brand name: http://theowl.co.nz

Kind regards,

George – Consumer NZ staff

Hamish W.
11 Feb 2016
Dumb meters

Our so-called smart meter cannot connect to vodafone because vodafone don't offer a signal anywhere near here. So, it's a dumb meter! We did try to tell Powershop that before they installed it!

Kevin C.
13 Sep 2015
Smart Meters for gas

I installed a new gas furnace for our central heating but our gas usage was still very high and vey difficult to compare as the meter is only read every second month (they now let me advise the meter reading each month by phone). I contacted Mercury who installed a smart meter for the electricity but they do not have smart meters for gas. Is there a smart meter for gas available? The ability to monitor usage by day would be very helpful. I know I can read the meter myself but this is a hassle as the meter is not located with easy access.
Also Mercury compare usage against similar houses but were unable to tell me if the comparison had gas central heating and water included. Our gas usage is 2 to three times other similar houses while our electricity is less.

Previous member
14 Sep 2015
re: Smart Meters for gas

Hi Kevin,

There are smart meters for gas available, but they aren’t as widespread as electricity smart meters. At this stage Vector is one of the only gas retailers offering smart meters. They’ve been trialling advanced gas metering technology and hope to retro-fit the technology on existing gas meters. If you’re keen on a smart meter for gas, you could consider switching to Vector, but we’d recommend checking price trends against those of your existing retailer using Powerswitch: https://www.powerswitch.org.nz/powerswitch

Regards,
George – Consumer NZ staff.

John B.
12 Sep 2015
Quality of Information

Smart meters offer excellent detail on your usage, but power companies are playing games with making this available, we have tried 3:
Genesis - provided a good report, but delayed by 4 days, able to be downloaded for further analysis
Trustpower - didn't provide any data at all
Flick (current) - a good report but delayed by 3-5 days and no ability to download data, although it could be recovered from the weekly emails. Wonderful feature of pricing by time enables the use of time delays on items like driers, but no realtime data, say on an App, means high priced periods cannot be avoided

Flick seem to be the closest to providing a useful service but are just starting up, I buried their lack of download facility and time delay and they responded that it was on their development map - good on them, we have saved a lot.

Jason H.
17 Aug 2015
I've enjoyed smart meters so far

I moved into a rental that already had a smart meter installed, and I joined up with Powershop. I find the readings to be significantly up to date (don't have to rely on someone coming around every 1-6 months), so I'm not making payments based on estimates that could be wildly off. On top of that Powershop give me tools online that let me check my usage using something called a heat graph. It became obvious that things like the heat pump and taking showers were the primary spikes in power usage, and mean that as a power user I am a lot more conscious about the power usage in the home. I don't think I'm ever going to get myself a power bill debt.

Wade
16 Aug 2015
Dumb smart meters

What a con!

We have just had a dumb smart meter installed. It is very disappointing as this months Consumer article on meters point out that the capability for the consumer to read direct via a PC what energy and when they are using, has not been installed. Hence my term Dumb smart meter.
Also not sure if people are aware but the so called smart meters also have a remote switch off enabled. This function can be used to remotely switch your power off.

Has consumer investigated this and what the legalities of it are?

None of this information is readily supplied by the retailer when the meter is installed which I think is just not good enough.

If people are getting one installed make sure you ask for an Electrical Safety Certificate signed by the installer which certifies that the work he has done is safe.

WD

Previous member
17 Aug 2015
re: Dumb smart meters

Hi Wade,

Electricity retailers can remotely disconnect your power (just like they could with the old analogue meters by sending an electrician), but they need to make a reasonable effort to contact you, and provide a notice of at least 7 days if the bill remains unpaid. They may also remotely disconnect the meter if there's a fault in the network. The Electricity Authority has more information about your rights regarding disconnections: http://www.ea.govt.nz/consumers/what-are-my-rights-as-an-electricity-consumer/do-i-have-any-rights-around-a-disconnection/

Kind regards,
George - Consumer NZ staff.

Carl W.
15 Aug 2015
Meridian can't remotly read smart meter

We had new smart meter installed mid last year. After a few months of estimated readings I contacted Meridian who said they were having problems reading our smart meter remotly but that they would keep trying.
In March we recived a calling card from a meter reader saying he had called but as we were not home was unable to get a meter reading. I emailed the readings through, no problem doing this. It is now August and we are still getting estimated readings that I keep checking against my own meter reading and sending the updated readings to Meridian.
We live in town with perfect cell phone coverage on all networks so this can't be a problem for remote reading.
Frustrating.

Carl W.
18 Aug 2015
Update

Spoke with meter reader today. It appears that if you have solar panels or other home generation that exports to the grid then they can't remotely read the meters.

Jean W.
08 Feb 2016
Not that smart

Contact can't either, since I installed solar panels and they put in an import/export meter. I find it surprising that they can't read the new meter remotely. Surely it's higher-tech than an import-only meter. And it can't be that hard for the meter to send an identifier for the exported figure and the imported figure. It sends one to the screen on the physical meter.

Kerry S.
15 Aug 2015
Certification

Hello
Where do you find the expiry date for your meter, can you install new analogue meters that meet certification, who certifies the meter and is there any other costs relating to meter change.
Can you opt not to have the "smart" communication device installed with the Smart meter then bypassing the daily delivery of information to the Retailer. Will they charge for a reading.

Previous member
17 Aug 2015
re: Certification

Hi Kerry,

You should be able to see the expiry date and certification on a sticker on the front of the meter. Most retailers will send around a technician to replace an old analogue meter with a smart meter when its certification expires. There should be no cost for a smart meter unless your provider isn't rolling them out to everyone, but you want one to make your billing more accurate.

As for opting not to have the "smart" communication device installed with the smart meter, this will depend on the retailer and be decided on the case-by-case basis. There have been cases where consumers have been able to have the communication capability removed from their smart meter. In this case, the retailer should not charge extra for a reading.

Kind regards,
George - Consumer NZ staff.