In a house somewhere in Dublin, a large dog is leading a revolt against energy companies. The home is apparently next on the list for an infamous smart meter. But our canine comrade, understood to be about as tall as myself when on his hind legs, is remonstrating fiercely against it.
Each time the beleaguered men from the energy company come to install the more advanced meter, they’re met at the garden gate by the kind of snarling and barking that hardly makes the doomed venture seem worthwhile. And would you believe, each time this happens the dog’s owner seems to be otherwise engaged and completely unable to hear the savage ruckus outside the front door.
In fact, those trying to install smart meters have had fierce bad luck with some houses. Each time they arrive, there seems to be a car or a van or some other perfectly-sized obstacle parked in front of the existing meter. And despite twitching curtains and other signs of life in the house, nobody ever seems to come to the door to help.
So says the man who was in my kitchen last week to do an independent home energy assessment. ‘Independent’ being the operative word. He had the honesty and the helpfulness only ever found in someone who isn’t burdened with the task of trying to sell you something.
“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t let them near the meter. Do whatever you can to hold them off for as long as you can...”
The old-fashioned energy meters were only ever designed to go one way. As energy is used, the meter goes up. Nobody anticipated that a scenario where energy would be flowing the other way. But if you can get the money together for solar panels, as I hope to do, and you start generating more electricity than your house is using, the meter will start to turn back. So the amount of electricity the meter thinks your home is using will go down. Not only does this mean that your electricity bill would reduce, it also means that you could be doubly benefitting if you are also selling the same surplus units back to the grid.
Up until that revelatory moment at the kitchen table, I had assumed that a smart meter would be a good thing. Mystified by the alleged technical brilliance of them, and guilted by the financial and moral necessity to use less energy, I would have welcomed a smart meter into my home with gratitude.
In reality, people are either bamboozled by the meters and their poorly communicated merits, punished by pricey plans and peak-time penalties, or rightly concerned about the data the meters are collecting and who is accessing it
And I was even less enamoured with the idea of them a day later, when I read in this very newspaper that the tariffs associated with them were actually costing people more than the ones they would have been on with their old-fashioned meter. The Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU), the body that regulates energy companies in Ireland, said that it was now working with ESB Networks “to find out why some of the tariffs are so expensive”.
There are over 900,000 smart meters installed in homes across Ireland at the moment, and they plan to add 10,000 more every week — eventually hitting a target of 2.4 million smart meters by 2024. Far be it for me to try to predict political crises, but I certainly would have thought that this generation of politicians would be more judicious about if, when and how they started putting meters of any kind in people’s homes — particularly during an energy crisis.
Smart meters have benefitted from big puffs of PR for their noble and pure agenda to teach all of us that electricity is cheaper at night. (Who knew?) In reality, people are either bamboozled by the meters and their poorly communicated merits, punished by pricey plans and peak-time penalties, or rightly concerned about the data the meters are collecting and who is accessing it.
Energy conservation should always start with the measures that have the lowest cost but the highest impact. I learned during my home-energy assessment that Ireland would hit its climate emission targets if every home in Ireland had its attic insulated. If that is true, why aren’t they sending people around to our houses with cheap insulation rather than expensive contraptions?
Ireland tends to be more sympathetic, understanding and supportive of climate-justice measures than other countries. The support of the country is the State’s to lose. And at this stage of the climate crisis, we cannot afford to make any mistakes. The cost-of-living crisis is already threatening public support for crucial measures like the carbon tax. If people feel like they’ve had their good faith taken advantage of only to find themselves trapped with a smart meter that’s making their energy bills worse, then it will be nothing short of a disaster. If we lose people on smart meters now, we will never get them back.