The European Union smart meter rollout calamity continues…

Europe’s collective smart meter rollout has come under further fire as the University of Twente published a report this week that found the devices to be as much as 583% inaccurate. European Union members agreed smart meters would be installed across Europe’s 220 million households by 2020 – a policy decision which now looks shaky.

If there is now an apparently reputable study that calls into question the accuracy of these meters, there will be even less enthusiasm from the utilities to speed up their deployment schedules to meet those EU targets. In this environment, full installation by 2020 is looking less and less likely, with utilities moving painfully slowly, and consumers not being swayed by the perceived benefits.

The study found that five of the ten smart meter devices tested, gave inaccurate readings. The scientists declined to embarrass the smart meter vendors affected, but confirmed that the meters involved in the test have been sold and installed across Europe.

The issues seem to be caused by a component known as the Rogowski Coil, one of the four types of current sensor used in a static meter. The paper found “as a Rogowski coil results in a time-derivative of the measured current, the measured voltage has to be integrated. Probably, active integration is used instead of passive integration, and the input electronics are pushed in saturation caused by the high rise-time of the current.”

Poor meter design and increasing use of modern energy efficient devices are also to blame, according to the university. The report found that energy saving devices change the shape of electrical currents which can result in a distorted reading. LED lightbulbs caused the largest inaccuracies, and are becoming increasingly commonplace in homes.

University researchers, tested meters by connecting them to a range of devices, found in a typical home – finding that the product testing processes employed by vendors were not rigorous enough, failing to iron out issues caused by electromagnetic interference.

The European Commission had previously claimed that installing the technology across Europe would save consumers around 3% on energy bills, as meters provided more accurate information, and can be used to encourage more energy efficient behavior.

A national smart meter roll out opens doors to a range of efficiency boosting techniques, like demand response and increased renewable penetration and storage – which utilities can use to run more efficient energy networks. On the end-user side, smart meters also provide real time usage data to consumers, which could encourage them to adopt more energy efficient usage behaviors – by gamifying consumption via the in-home LCD units or a smartphone app.

However, if the meters are inaccurate to the extent found in the report, it seems likely that consumers won’t be able to rely on them for this kind of gamified experience. On a larger scale, the utilities will be reluctant to install defective metering systems, especially once erroneous bills start appearing in small claims courts – or worse, in largescale class-action lawsuits.

The UK government reported that in Q3 of 2016, 4.9m meters were operating in smart mode – or 8% of the targeted 2020 number. We suspect the UK figures to be indicative of the rest of Europe, and Germany is notably much further behind the rest of Western Europe in its rollout.

The UK government published its review of the country’s smart meter roll out in November 2016. The program has already cost $6bn (£5bn), the report also stated that the net gain for business has been as much as $880m (£724m). It would be interesting to see these calculations run again, factoring in the costs that would arise from having to replace known defective meters, or diagnose meters as part of bill disputes with customers.

The smart meter rollout in Europe has also been frustrated by a lack of appropriate network coverage. Rethink leadership has personally encountered this problem, in a home just 20-miles from the UK’s eighth-biggest city. Uninstallation figures are not currently published by any government or company, but without sufficient network coverage, we expect these return-visits to be a rising inconvenient reality.

Bad news for smart meters seems to be a recurring theme this week. Some Scottish and Southern Electric customer found smart meter in-home displays showed they consumed as much as £30,000 ($36,000) worth of energy in a day. When we spoke to SSE, it said the issue was a result of a routine software update to the in-home display, and that the smart meters worked fine. News stories like this, are hardly helpful to the proponents of the technology, and can be damaging to wider consumer confidence in the technology.