Smart meters and the internet of things

I read some news  that  a Cambridge company has produced a very low-energy component for use in smart electricity meters and other digitally interactive devices – like fridges, washing machines, freezers, tumble driers, kitchen equipment and other consumer goods.

As all these things become digitally interconnected, they form part of the “internet of things” – a network of wireless frequencies which allows any smart (radio frequency identification tagged) object to be located, logged and monitored.

Increasingly, people are talking about smart homes where heating, lighting and appliances will be controlled in order to minimise energy use, water use and carbon emissions. But will we want to live like this? Or will we need and want to be able to control these things ourselves?

Smart meters will be optional in the UK

Smart electricity meters are wifi-enabled and transmit readings of your energy use at intervals throughout the day and night to the energy company, and in turn the energy company can turn your electricity on and off for different devices and appliances in your home. This is to smooth out peaks and troughs in energy use.

In the UK,  about 400,000 smart meters have so far been installed. The government had plans to roll them out to everyone, via a regulated Data and Communications Company, to be set up for the purpose. But the government now says that households will be able to choose whether or not to have smart meters.

Objectors point to reported health effects like headaches, and also to civil rights and privacy issues, like the fact that energy companies would be able to build up a picture of households’ activities through their patterns of energy use.

There is also the issue that smart meters will also probably come with a two tier tariff system – one tariff if you can afford to buy the option of continuous electricity supply, a lower tariff if you agree to power cuts when the smart grid says there’s not enough supply to meet demand. Guess who will be able to afford continuous energy and who won’t?

And research from Oxford University and Delft University in  Holland casts doubt on the claim that smart meters help households to reduce the amount of energy they use.

Energy companies that install smart meters on a large scale will probably make a lot of staff redundant, like meter readers and call centre staff. They will also be able to cut off households’ electricity supplies by remote control, and introduce per-minute variable pricing, based on the level of demand at the time.

Surveillance and the internet of things

The UK is already one of the most extreme surveillance societies in the world, with an unusually large number of cctv cameras recording our movements. The internet of things holds the possibility that companies will be able to intensify surveillance of us. So what are we going to do about it?

2012 is the two hundredth anniversary of the Luddites, who opposed technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, ie. to the common good. So, to honour them we could set about destroying ubiquitous computing  (the use of radio frequency identification tags to broadcast our location, movements and activities through smart cards and other objects).

Making ubiquitous computing work for us and insisting on fair trade hardware

Alternatively, we could insist on smart technology being an option, not a default. And also find ways to make it work for us, instead of on us. In The Internet of Things: A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID, Rob Van Kranenburg says that in order to be able to take control of  future and emergent technology, socio-technical hackers need to combine skills of social activism and open source coders.

I guess this is what hack labs do: appropriating technology for social transformation.

We also need fair trade hardware – hardware that:

  • has clearly documented specifications in an open-content licensing fashion and does not rely on any proprietary components
  • is designed/produced/manufactured in a country where human rights and labour rights are not violated
  • is designed/produced/manufactured with a focus on maximizing recyclability and preventing  pollution
  • is based on components that are traceable and which the fair-trade hardware rules can be applied to
In the meantime, Refab Space is getting off the ground in Sheffield.

And on my way to see Geoff in Tan My Hide the other day, I saw a sign in the Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre Green Shop window that they have now opened an AT lab,  so that should be interesting.

There is also a new FabLab in Keighley, in Dalton Mills. This is a digital fabrication workshop to help anyone make practically anything. There is free community access from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays, from April 14th.

Open source energy monitors put householders in control

The Manchester Carbon Coop has teamed up with Open Energy Monitor in Wales to promote the use of open source energy monitors.

Open source energy monitor diagram from OpenEnergyMonitor website

The Carbon Coop says open source energy monitors put householders in control – rather than handing over control to the Big Six Energy Companies through conventional smart meters.

According to the Carbon Coop, open source energy monitors can collect data from a variety of sensors,  from electricity usage to gas, humidity, temperature and even carbon dioxide (an indicator of air flow and therefore of the draughtiness of a house). This means householders get a much deeper understanding of their household environment than just electricity usage, so they get a good overall picture of the energy performance of their homes.

Millions of smart meters already installed in USA

As usual, the future has already arrived on the West Coast of the USA, where Southern California Edison has just installed its four millionth smart meter. A press release  from the smart meter company, Itron, states that the smart meters have reduced energy use. However, there is some public opposition to the installation of smart meters, on both health and privacy grounds. (My friend Elena in San Francisco says this opposition is nuts.)

Pacific Gas & Electricity (another California utility company) has reinstalled an analogue meter for a customer who reported health problems from the digital meter’s wifi signals. More than 47 local governments in California are opposed to smart meters, and at least 12 have outlawed smart meter installations in their areas.

Finally, here’s a video from PowerFilm that says the so-called smart grid isn’t very smart at all, and the companies and governments that are introducing it are barking up the wrong tree. Instead, the videomakers say that the world’s energy needs can be met through distributed renewable energy – in other words, energy from renewables that is produced in many locations,  rather than centrally produced and then sent through a big grid to where it’s needed.