The government’s consultation on the roll-out of smart meters comes to a close this month

For many domestic consumers, the meters will mean nothing more than an end to estimated utility bills and the opportunity to pick from a range of tariffs at the flick of switch. But the real-time display of energy consumption provided by the technology has much wider implications for Britain’s carbon strategy.

Smart meters combined with time-of-use tariffs will encourage householders to switch off appliances during peak demand times, saving them money and, more importantly, reducing the generating capacity required. This limiting of demand fluctuations will provide the stepping stone to smart grids.

The government is committed to diversifying electricity production away from carbon-intensive sources to more decentralised forms of energy, such as wind and wave. These cannot supply power at all times of the day, and power lines will need to become two-way conduits of energy to cope with the ebbs and flows of supply. In the longer term, then, smart meters will enable network operators to manage the intermittent nature of renewables.

The grid will also be able to support increasing numbers of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, helping to reduce emissions from road transport, which is a vital part of the solution to meet our climate change commitments promoted by Professor David MacKay in this month’s interview (page 26). The cars can be charged at night, when the system has more capacity and electricity is cheaper. There is even a suggestion that a national network of electric cars could act as an electricity storage system so that if, say, the wind suddenly drops, power could flow from the vehicles back to the grid.

The roll-out of smart meters is due to be completed by 2020. The government’s advisory body, the Electricity Networks Strategy Group, has given warning that to meet this target, work on upgrading the grid needs to move ahead now. The difficulty for network providers is that many of the improvements will require planning permission, which could take time. Without the correct grid infrastructure, however, the impact of smart meters could be limited to little more than good housekeeping.

Andy Pearson, Editor