Taking back control: Gaz, Leccy, and Frank Field

Here is the first ad in the government campaign for the deployment of so-called smart energy meters, a giant Internet of Things project that’s not going so well.

So here we have the charming little tykes Gaz and Leccy, a pair of mischievous pseudo-adolescents bouncing around causing trouble for the tired-olds (check out that astonishingly patronising voiceover!) with their delightful pranks.

The idea is that we use too much energy, or something, because we lack control. If we had more (self-) control we would abstain and be better people, and have smaller gas bills. But obviously we don’t, because we’re not the elect who don’t have these problems. (It’s all intensely Protestant.) It’s worth noting that the dynamic duo are designed and named to seem like a novelty crisp flavour or something, an artefact of vaguely shameful consumer indulgence.

Fortunately, technology can help us get Gaz’n’Leccy under control! Because if you had a readout of your gas and electricity bills in real time you might…I dunno, not cook dinner? Put a cute bonsai brick in the kettle?

Well, Nick Hunn’s great blog has been on the case ever since the beginning of the smart meter programme. You’re paying for the gadget via your bill, most of the ones already deployed will have to be replaced because GCHQ CESG did a security review of the wireless protocol and shit a proper full-sized Staffordshire fletton at the thought of connecting it to the national grid, and it doesn’t work. Gas usage is only displayed every half-hour.

There is some evidence that an In Home Display (IHD) providing real time feedback may nudge a consumer into changing electricity use. But as far as anyone can tell, there is no similar evidence in the case of gas. That’s because gas usage is only displayed every half hour, at which point you’ve no idea whether it was being used for cooking, heating the house, or doing the washing up. With no linkage, there’s no nudge, so there’s no saving. Despite this, DECC and BEIS have always claimed their 2% reduction extends to gas usage, accounting for half of the total consumer savings. The general consensus is that they made this up to provide a positive net benefit for the project, despite the absence of any evidence. Hence at least half of the £11 annual saving is probably mythical. Mike O’Brien – the energy minister in Gordon Brown’s Government, who had a smart meter installed in 2010, admitted this week that he “barely looked at it, didn’t use it. We got rid of it”.

Also, electricity usage is falling, not rising, and the only intervention that seem to have an effect on gas consumption is good old insulation:

I’ve sat in a House of Commons meeting where a senior minister at BEIS told MPs that we need smart meters because energy usage is increasing year on year and smart meters will stop it. Except that’s not really true. Gas usage is increasing, but BEIS’s own figures show that electricity usage is falling every year. To justify the cost of the GB smart meters, DECC estimated the savings that customer would achieve by using In Home Displays . However, these only really influence electricity usage, not gas usage and even for electricity their effect is questionable. I’ve never seen a substantive piece of research which decouples the effect of an In Home Display on electricity usage from the underlying reduction in consumption that comes from improved efficiency in appliance design. All those A+++ marking on appliances and EU regulations for more efficient phone chargers do have a real effect. In contrast, the only strategies which reduce gas usage appear to be grants for insulation and possibly smart thermostats, neither of which are affected by smart meters

The numbers cited in the ad campaign are, in a word, fake news:

Their webpage explains the workings behind seven adverts and in every single case they’ve got their calculations wrong. The mistakes range from a failure to understand how battery charging works, an inability to calculate percentages, getting formulas wrong, misreading much of their source data, including mistaking 2 x 12 for 212, not understanding the context of their source data or realising that electricity and gas have markedly different prices.

Also, we’re giving O2 £2bn to provide GPRS service to the things. This might be a problem if and when O2 wants to switch off its 2G network and reuse the long reach 900MHz band it works in. It’s worth remembering that the original two networks, Vodafone and what is now O2, got given the 900MHz for nothing back in the day. That said I have my doubts it will really, really go away, not least because so much Internet of Things stuff has been put in there and the standards world has created a cut-down version of the protocol just for this purpose.

One thing it will do is get rid of meter readers, in so far as they still exist. The industry hopes it will also be able to blame you for billing disputes more easily. On the other hand, I think they might be onto a wrong’un there, given their habit of shamelessly trying it on at every review (see also here. Actually measuring usage cuts both ways.

The smart meter project is a national embarrassment, and Ed Miliband (for it is he!) ought to be ashamed for having started it. But this isn’t quite my point.

Remember the ad we started this post with. It’s all about taking back control, something of a trope. But control over what? DECC and its industry partners propose to regulate and control you. Their advertising agency communicates this as a project of therapy, of taking back control over yourself. We’ve seen a hell of a lot of this. In many ways, for example, Frank Field’s career was dedicated to the proposition that the poor do it to themselves and need badgering to pull themselves together, couched in a language of self-improvement.

On the other hand, the successful policies Nick Hunn lists all involve using the regulatory state to take back control over our physical surroundings. It’s not Gaz and Leccy we need to take back control over – it’s the Big Six providers, landlords, and, if you will, Frank Field. (I know he’s quit, but I can’t resist the joke.)

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