Imagine a national program to have car speedo's replaced in all cars with counters that show you the up-to-the-minute cost of your motoring. Useful, maybe? Efficiency driving (geddit)? Er, not really. Sure you might not accelerate so quickly if you could see just how much more expensive it is, but what would really make your journey more efficient is a better engine, more efficient tyres or an alternative fuel source.
The government's plans to make utility smart meters mandatory so that consumers will save money by being able to see energy consumption in real time is frighteningly similar. How will I really save money? Is it by reading a giant meter showing pounds and pence, or is it by having light bulbs that consume less energy, a boiler that heats more efficiently and windows that leak less heat? Smart metering is a deceit if it's sold on the basis of cost savings for consumers and the research in countries such as Sweden, Norway and France that have launched such programs backs this up - since the 'benefits' often simply cover the costs of implementation.
Smart meters are good at certain things, but simply knowing the specific energy levels that you're consuming does not in itself increase efficiency - all it may do is encourage you to use less. The real benefit of smart metering is for suppliers. Instead of tracking consumption periodically (with unreliable periodic manual readings) they can get almost real-time readings that can help them better plan supply distribution. This is a good thing, but the question is whether consumers should be forced to pay for the installation for a device that benefits the supplier rather than themselves?
Perhaps the reason for this folly goes back to who is behind the initiative. When governments get involved with major IT projects, the results aren't often inspiring. With a planned roll-out of 53 million units, estimated to cost a whopping £11.7bn, smart meter roll-out will be one of Britain's largest IT projects in years. Sadly, it's yet another example of a genuine lack of ambition by a government.
Instead, they should be thinking bigger and considering the extent to which the Internet of Things, connected devices and smart homes will revolutionise our understanding of energy consumption and the behavioural habits of consumers within the home. Rather than relying on the government to push through expensive technology that delivers little utility for customers at massive cost, it's clear that we need to be considering the technology that will be developed in the same time it takes to install smart meters in every home. Given that the private sector moves much faster than the public, we'll see huge progress in the next five years in terms of connecting homes and the possibilities for increasing efficiency.
Taking this into account, why would you want to know total electricity consumption if instead, you could understand the consumption of each device in your home? If we had an agreed protocol for the Internet of Things and support from utility companies for this data, just imagine how this could change consumers' daily lives. Think of a simple interface (or a further development of the existing apps) provided by your energy company that allowed you to identify specific devices against your bill. You could look at it via your smartphone or your laptop, bypassing the need for a separate screen (as per the government's plans). Now, what if an algorithm was able to understand the tipping point for replacing a high energy device with a low energy device, factoring in the purchase price and your personal energy consumption? This would be a truly smart world. Today's smart meters aren't as smart as you think; they're pretty dumb.