A little known code governing smart meters includes details of sweeping powers that could take over customer accounts.
It reveals that technology is available to the meter network that could enable suppliers to raid credit balances built up by consumers, turn off supplies remotely, raise prices and even switch problem customers on to a pre-payment scheme. Authority to use these functions has yet to be granted.
Nick Hunn, a wireless technology expert with London-based firm WiFore, fears this might eventually give energy suppliers the ability to act like the fictional Big Brother in the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Privacy concerns: An expert fears smart meter technology might eventually give energy suppliers the ability to act like the fictional Big Brother
He says: ‘No one is telling us about all the extra features hidden within smart meters that grant control to suppliers. As well as the scope for them to adjust charges, it provides an opportunity to spy on when energy is being used and on what – for example, if you take a shower or bath – and when.
‘The industry is forcing households to spend billions on devices that benefit the supplier more than the customer. It seems a bit Big Brother.’
THE BIG ROLL-OUT
News of the potential extra powers comes in the wake of a critical report on the roll-out of smart meters from the British Infrastructure Group of Parliamentarians (BIG). Chaired by Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, it says the nation is spending £11billion on ‘obsolete’ meters.
The all-party group, backed by 93 MPs, also believes the annual savings customers make from paying for gas and electricity via a smart meter has fallen from £26 to just £11. It wants energy regulator Ofgem to ensure suppliers pass on any savings from the rollout of smart meters to customers instead of pocketing cash themselves.
Campaign: TV star Maxine Peake is the voice of adverts
Widespread anxiety over the smart meter programme and the controlling role that energy firms are playing in the process has not deterred Government-funded lobby group Smart Energy GB.
It has spent millions of pounds on advertising, including in recent weeks TV voiceovers from acclaimed actress Maxine Peake, in an attempt to stem the rising tide of hostility against the project. The target is to install 53million smart meters in homes and small businesses by the end of 2020.
Smart meters enable a supplier to talk remotely to them by radio waves. They benefit customers as the technology includes a separate hand-sized monitor kept in the home. Linked to a meter, it shows how much electricity and gas is being used in near real-time.
It is hoped that the monitor, usually kept in the kitchen, will help households cut utility bills as they become aware of when electrical devices are unnecessarily consuming energy, such as when electronic items are left on standby. Smart meters also put an end to estimated bills and the need for customers or suppliers to take a reading.
The Mail on Sunday has discovered the meters are not all about saving money. They have the potential to enable suppliers to take control of a customer’s account – details of which are in an industry-backed code of conduct for energy suppliers known as the Smart Energy Code.
It can already be used to add credit to a customer account. But additional ‘functionality’ that could be switched on in the future includes enabling suppliers to cut off a household’s electricity or gas without visiting the property. Suppliers might also add debt to a meter, remove credit on an account, change the charge being levied or turn the meter into a pre-payment device.
Protest: The Mail on Sunday’s reports showing devices are not as smart as they might seem
Energy companies state that although smart meters already installed might be able to use some of these functions, they are ‘not switched on’. But smart meters offering pre-payment options could be installed as early as next year.
Industry regulator Ofgem is also exploring ‘time-of-use’ surge pricing where energy tariffs could change half hourly, depending on National Grid demand. This could be monitored and controlled by smart meters. Findings will be published next year.
An Ofgem spokesman says: ‘Smart meters can help consumers control their energy use. A time-of-use tariff could allow households fitted with a smart meter to save money by using electricity at a cheaper time of the day such as during the night.’
Energy suppliers insist they will not turn on any of these extra functions without permission from the regulator – and that in many cases the technology is not in place to do it. Moving customers on to pre-payment will only be a ‘measure of last resort’.
Keith Anderson, chief executive of Scottish Power, says: ‘Smart meter functions such as taking half-hour data have the potential to benefit consumers by offering savings based on real-time.’
Opportunity: Switching expert Jane Lucy
Currently, ‘first generation’ smart meters are being rolled out. Known as SMETS 1 – with SMETS standing for Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specification – they have been widely criticised. Up to 10 per cent do not work due to poor mobile reception while as many as half ‘go dumb’ if someone switches to another provider – with them losing remote access features.
The much-heralded replacement – SMETS 2 – is supposed to work across all suppliers, so customers can keep the same meter. But it has been plagued with problems. Only 9,000 have been installed – and not all work.
Jane Lucy is founder of energy switching service Labrador. She says: ‘The industry is being tight-lipped about the real reason for the delays with SMETS 2. My view is the technology is not yet robust enough.’ She also believes that the additional ‘functionality’ options demanded by energy suppliers – a ‘modification proposal’ for the code – add to the complexity and may delay new meters.
Lucy says: ‘The potential for suppliers to take control of households’ energy accounts needs to be carefully policed. With a dispute – perhaps if moving home – a smart meter could be used to let a supplier take money even when it is not you that owes the outstanding debt.’
She adds: ‘Of course smart meters can provide an opportunity for households to take control of energy bills and save money, but they are less cost effective than simply switching to a more competitive supplier.’
The Government stated in 2009 that all homes in Britain should be fitted with a smart meter by 2020 at the latest. Yet despite a huge advertising budget of £224million, focused on promoting its positive features, this deadline is now unrealistic.
So far just over a third of all households – about 11million – have had a meter installed. It is expected that the deadline will be extended – a recommendation made in the parliamentary report.
Last week Citizens Advice suggested that 2023 would be ‘more realistic’.
The Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is responsible for smart meter policy. It confirmed ‘a proposed change to the Smart Meter Code’ was raised in February last year to allow suppliers to add additional functions. It stated it will make a decision on the proposal ‘in due course.’
Citizens Advice says: ‘You do not have to accept a smart meter if you do not want one. An option is to have a meter installed but ask for the “smart” functionality to be switched off.’
Robert Cheesewright of Smart Energy GB, the organisation promoting the meter rollout, says: ‘Smart meters mean an end to estimated billing and give people a greater understanding of energy use.’