A cross-party committee of UK members of parliament has warned that 7 million electricity and gas smart meters are going to stop working in Great Britain. What will this mean for energy customers?
Why will so many smart meters stop working?
Smart meters, which are supposed to automatically report a household’s energy consumption to users and energy companies, use mobile phone networks to connect to energy company servers so they don’t have to rely on homes having broadband connections. The problem raised by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts in its report on 20 October is that older 2G and 3G mobile networks, which are used by current smart meters, are being turned off and dismantled.
This will leave about 7 million homes without working smart meters, adding to the 3 million installed devices that already weren’t working as of March 2023, says the report.
A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which is responsible for smart meters, says energy companies will need to foot the bill. “Energy suppliers are also obliged to upgrade communications equipment to ensure smart meters continue to be connected, and we are working with industry to support a smooth transition for consumers when 2G and 3G is switched off at the end of 2033,” they say.
Will the smart meters need to be replaced?
Mike Hewitt, chief technology officer of the Data Communications Company (DCC), which has been contracted by the UK government to connect smart meters in homes with phone networks and energy suppliers, has said in a blog post that no smart meters will need replacing. However, a device called a communications hub, which is installed in every home alongside the smart meter, will need changing. The communication hubs take messages from the meters to a network.
DCC will need to roll out 4G-compatible hubs to homes across the country. Even once that is done, though, the clock will be ticking down to the day that 4G networks are eventually switched off. The DCC didn’t respond to a request for comment.
When are 2G and 3G phone networks being switched off in the UK?
The 2G, or second-generation, mobile network was launched in the early 1990s and offered voice calls and text messaging for smartphone. Then the early 2000s brought the 3G network, which could also handle data for emails and web browsing.
Installation of the faster 4G network started in the 2010s and now companies are working on rolling out the 5G network. The various technologies require different infrastructure and smartphone handsets, which phone companies need to maintain as long as the networks are running.
The UK’s mobile network operators have said that the latest they will support 2G and 3G devices is 2033. But some companies are already switching them off and others are taking steps to do so. Some cities and towns are already without 3G networks, with mobile network operator EE switching off infrastructure in Warrington, and more people will find themselves in the same boat soon.
The news shouldn’t be coming as a shock to energy companies; industry reports have warned about the impact of switching off 2G networks since at least 2019.
Do smart meters reduce energy usage or save money?
The most recent information on smart meters and energy usage comes from installations between 2015 and 2018, which show a reduction of consumption of as much as 3.6 per cent for electricity and up to 3.1 per cent for gas after the installation of smart meters. That shows that there is a potential for smart meters to nudge people towards using less energy.
But the Committee of Public Accounts also points out in its report that the UK government is falling behind on its targets to install the devices – at the start of this year only 57 per cent of all electricity and gas meters were smart – and that those using them tend to have higher incomes and be more able to update appliances that they find out use a lot of power.
Will other devices be affected by the 2G and 3G switch-off?
Smart meters aren’t alone in relying on 3G networks. Technology including security alarms, cash machines, safety systems in cars that automatically report crashes, e-readers, payment terminals in shops and medical alert devices is also reliant on 3G. It is unclear how many of these devices have been upgraded or if there are plans to.
E.ON, British Gas and EDF Energy didn’t respond to requests to comment. Smart Energy GB, the energy industry body set up to promote smart meters, declined to comment.