Smart meters were introduced by energy suppliers and the government supposedly as a way to make life easier for consumers. Energy bills would be more accurate and cheaper, and the smart meters would be ultimately to our benefit. They would enable us to pay exactly for what energy we use, rather than relying on estimates.
Smart meters also, it was claimed, would make all our energy use more efficient as they would encourage us to monitor what we used and change our behaviour accordingly. On paper, a win-win for consumer choice and the environment.
Ofgem happily state on their website, for example, that smart meters mean suppliers can offer tariffs that could reduce our charges if we ‘use power when it is cheaper to buy it on the wholesale market’. The government’s own website talks up how smart meters empower us, putting ‘consumers in control of their energy use … with accurate information at their fingertips’. Smart Energy, an ‘independent’ organisation supporting the smart meter roll-out thinks that convenience and ease of meter readings is one of the big benefits, telling us we can ‘wave goodbye to complicated meter readings’.
But the purpose of smart meters is not to do with energy efficiency or user convenience at all. A government adviser who was at the meetings with the UK government’s then Department of Trade & Industry developing the concept of smart meters told the New Scientist in 2018, the smart meter scheme was not conceived as a way to do remote meter readings or make things easier for customers.
Instead, it was seen as a way for the energy company to automatically and instantly alter the price paid by customers as demand fluctuated. This makes it more difficult for people to budget as their bills could alter without them knowing about it.
Another expert advising the UK Government and European Commission on the roll-out of smart meters observed at the time that the energy suppliers’ chief concern in these talks was not help for customers. It was, in fact, credit control. They wanted to more easily and quickly be able to switch people who were in debt onto pre-paid supply.
And today, this is precisely what smart meters can do. They allow energy companies to switch people onto a pre-payment system remotely and immediately. By contrast, if you’re on an ordinary meter, being switched to a prepayment meter is a costly and timely process: the prepayment meter needs to be manually installed, which can take weeks and requires specialist skills.
With smart meters, energy can be withdrawn digitally rather than manually. This means it could happen at scale, with the click of a button, and makes it much harder for people to defend themselves and each other against their energy being cut off. With the government proposing the possibility of rolling blackouts this winter, could smart meters also be used as a way to enforce blackouts remotely?
As those on enforced pre-payment meters already know, this model of debt bondage operates as a form of blackmail. You cannot freely choose not to purchase this life-giving commodity; if you do, you cannot heat your house or eat hot meals. So, you get into debt elsewhere.
That the energy companies’ key concern was to be allowed to switch people to pre-payment is alarming, especially in the current energy crisis. Not only is the energy market a monopoly; with smart meters, energy suppliers now externally monitor and control part of our homes, which can be switched to a form of pre-payment debt bondage from a computer in their head office.
Enforced pre-payment meters are a Dickensian technology that should be banned, yet the energy suppliers’ desire to secure control over our energy use (so we have no choice but to keep paying them) seems their core aim.
The surveillance uses that smart meters can be put to does not end there. In Australia, debt collectors are allowed to make use of the data produced by smart meters to know when people are at home. How long before they do the same here to enforce debt collection during this profit-driven inflation crisis?
This is not something that has mattered as much over last few years to most people. However, with the energy crisis growing, the problems with this dramatic shift in power from householder to energy firms is becoming apparent.
Smart cities, smart houses, smart farming...
The concept of smart technology is not limited to energy meters. It seems to be the approach that governments and corporations are adopting to extract more money from people while controlling our continued use of what should be common resources.
Over the last few decades, almost all our common resources and common spaces have been privatised and taken over by large corporations and private business. These are common resources like energy and water, to food and public space. We have smart meters, smart farming and smart cities. All are pitched to the public as having the same advantages – as ways to grant the public the benefits of choice, efficiency and convenience. All in fact have a lot more to do with data extraction, control over use and limiting our ownership and access to common resources.
In agriculture, smart farming means that corporations like Monsanto and John Deere control what technologies farmers use. Farmers now cannot even fix their own tractors without the permission of the agro-corporation that sold them it; if they do, they breach licencing laws.
The current drought in the UK has even led some water companies and government departments to propose the installation of mandatory water meters (already installed in many homes), to increase the efficiency of water use. Again, this can sound at first like a reasonable proposition. There are probably ways all of us could reduce our water usage during droughts. However, the lack of investment (in fixing leaks, building new reservoirs and maintaining supply) because water industries are privatised means the costs and limits on water usage are placed on the public, while profits are made private.
There are no proposals on the table to limit people’s water usage, nor to switch people to pre-payment of water. Not yet. But then again, when the roll-out of smart energy meters was first discussed, there were no public proposals that they would switch you to pre-payment if you fell into debt as energy became unaffordable.
Could it be possible that water meters could in the future be used to limit our water use or, if we got into water debt, put us onto pre-payment water meters?
As we approach limits on our energy, our food and our water due to under-investment, profiteering and short-term planning, the concept of smart technology is being increasingly sold to the public as an answer to these problems.
This is not some vast conspiracy planned by small group of people, but a logic of monitoring and control to extract data and money from us as resources become more scarce. Resource constraints are being individualised, while autonomy and public control of provision is being removed.
The solution cannot be found in more corporate monitoring, control and profiteering but instead the answer is to take back control of our resources from the private corporations, invest in them properly and run these public resources for the common good.