Smart meters are a subject of much debate. While some people praise them for their accuracy and automated functions (such as meter readings), others are worried about their potential dangers (electrosensitivity, privacy, etc.). We look at the issue in order to demystify this little box that arouses so much controversy.

It was just over a year ago that the Walloon Parliament voted in favour of installing smart meters – also known as communicating meters. This decision, taken in July 2018, came fairly late compared with other European countries. As an example, Italy, a pioneer in this field, installed its first smart meters in 2001. So it was time for Belgium to catch up!

As a result of this decision, consumers will no longer have a choice. Smart meters will gradually be making their way into our homes between 2023 and 2030. If a meter is replaced or a new connection is set up, a smart meter will automatically be installed.

But, first and foremost, what is a smart meter? How do these devices work? Who is affected by their installation? What are their advantages and disadvantages? And, finally, what is the situation today, a year after the decision was taken?

What is a smart meter?

A smart meter is an electricity meter capable of sending and receiving data remotely at regular intervals. In practice, this mainly involves sending your energy consumption readings automatically. Using “smart” technology, this type of meter is designed to improve the management of the gas and electricity consumption flows across the network.

Although some units (such as the “Linky” meter developed in France by Enedis) work by propagating waves via the electricity network (CPL), others communicate using the mobile telephone network (GPRS technology).

In Belgium, thousands of business have already had them installed, and some connected models have already been fitted in residential homes as part of pilot projects.

A mass national rollout for all customers on the low-voltage network is therefore only a matter of time: 2023 has been chosen as the deadline for Atrias (the collaboration platform responsible for improving data exchanges on the Belgian energy market) to be fully operational.

For now, the distribution network operators (DNO) still need to determine the best technology to adopt. Sibelga, the GRD in Brussels, decided to test the “Smart Ready” unit for new buildings, but mass adoption is not yet on the agenda.  As for RESA and ORES, the main GRDs in Wallonia, it was a case of opting for the “Linky” unit initially (and therefore using the electricity network). However, these two organisations do not necessarily favour this option and are reassessing the benefits of using the telephone network.

Who is affected by the installation of smart meters?

Initially, a widespread rollout was planned for all users of the network. However, the decision taken in summer 2018 favoured a more cautious adoption. As a result, only 80% of “large” Belgian consumers (with an annual energy consumption of at least 6,000 kWh) and individuals who produce their own energy and feed electricity back to the grid (so-called “prosumers”) will have their traditional electricity meter replaced as a priority. In practice, it is the owners of photovoltaic panels who will be mainly affected. It should be noted that the measure will also apply to individuals who have a charging point for their electric vehicle.

For residential customers who are unable to pay their bills, the smart meter will now replace the budget meter; production of budget meters has already stopped in Wallonia. Lastly, anyone who wants a smart meter will be able to request one.

Consumers cannot refuse to have the meter installed in their home by an approved technician, but those who wish to do so will be able to deactivate the meter’s communicating functions.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the smart meter?

Although smart meters offer a number of advantages, such as:

  • Remote meter readings;
  • Billing based on the amount of energy actually consumed;
  • Simpler prepayment with the disappearance of top-up cards
  • Faster and automatic detection of faults;
  • Giving you the opportunity to organise your consumption according to market prices (and, possibly, inviting you to change energy supplier);
  • A more accurate picture of your consumption data, which is particularly useful when you move house.
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… They also have their share of disadvantages:

  • According to several studies, the electromagnetic waves generated by the meters have a negative impact on health (what is known as electrosensitivity).  The government has stated that a special exemption can be granted to anyone who requests one if they are unable to tolerate electromagnetic waves;
  • For many people, the collection and transfer of data (who is consuming what at what time of the day) and the commercial use of such data raise privacy issues;
  • Remote disconnection of the electricity supply, which is made possible by smart meters, threatens to exacerbate the already precarious situation of households that are unable to pay their bills.

Justified misgivings?

Unpopularity in France

Despite the resources implemented, uptake of the “Linky” meter has been low in France. The reason mostly common given is the possible danger from the emitted waves. However, research shows that the waves generated by the “Linky” are harmless. Other French consumers also complain about their billing; since having a smart meter, their bills are apparently higher for a similar consumption. So the debate rages on in France.

Prosumer tariff issues in Belgium

In Belgium, the dissenting voices are less hostile but are still critical of smart meters. In our flat country, it is not so much the danger of electrosensitivity that is the main talking point, but rather the prosumer situation. A smart meter is consistent with the “prosumer tariff”, which is strongly criticised by owners of photovoltaic panels. It has already been in place in Flanders since 2014 and will apply in Brussels from 1 January 2020. Regarding its adoption in Wallonia, the new Walloon government has postponed this until 2025, but the situation remains uncertain.

As a reminder, this tariff represents a fee for using the distribution network.  Before it was introduced, prosumers were able to benefit from a system in which the meter ran backwards. In other words, the system allowed them to offset the energy they drew from the electricity distribution network with the energy they fed into the network via their panels. In this way, they were able to reduce their annual electricity bill.

A smart meter (often described as a dual meter for this particular situation) quantifies the energy actually drawn from and fed into the network, which means that an accurate charge can be billed. This explains why these new meters are unpopular.

>> Read also: Photovoltaic panels: near the end of the compensation scheme?

An essential energy transition tool but a topic of debate

It is 10 years since the European Commission urged Member States to roll out smart meters across their territory.

Although, in 2012, the cost-benefit analysis proved negative, an updated study (carried out by the CWaPE) found that the rollout of smart meters had become essential due to the discontinuation of traditional meter production and due to the urgent need to meet future energy transition challenges.

In 2012, the network operators concluded that the mass rollout of smart meters was not justified. Economically, it did not seem profitable and generated very few savings. But, today, the feeling is that these meters must be installed, slowly or more quickly depending on the situation”, explained Pascal Misselyn, coordinator at Brugel, when the smart meter rollout decision was adopted.

Lalibre.be.

The CWaPE study relied on by the ministry envisaged the retention of budget meters and a rollout over 30 years, both of which are key factors in achieving zero cost. However, the production of budget meters has already ceased in Wallonia and the scenario used by the government allows for a rollout over 15 years.

So, for its detractors, although the sectoral lobbies will benefit greatly from the planned mass rollout of smart meters, it is the Walloon consumers and taxpayers who may, ultimately, foot the bill.

Conclusion

Consumers therefore need to be proactive by taking advantage of what has now become an inevitable change. In fact, although smart meters may present a range of disadvantages, they can also help us achieve energy savings in real terms.


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