We'll all have smart meters by 2020

What's a smart meter?

Ambitious plans set out by the government aims to fit every UK home with a new smart meter by 2020.

However, despite the popular adoption of smart meters – Japan, China, US, Australia, Canada and the rest of EU have some type of smart meter strategy – some strongly believe UK residents should exercise their right to refuse a smart meter or risk detrimental health benefits and their privacy being infringed.

Smart meters run wirelessly using mobile phone-type signals and other wireless technologies to send accurate and more regular meter readings to your utility company.

The aim is to do away with estimated bills and the need for physical meter readings, while providing customers with energy usage information via an In-Home Display (IHD), which can be utilised to increase energy efficiency.

 Dr Elizabeth Evans, campaigner and co-founder of Stop Smart Meters UK, believes the radiofrequency (RF) radiation omitted is harmful. She says: "This extra burden of RF radiation, on top of the wireless devices already present in a person’s home may be catastrophic to health."

As well as potentially causing cancer (Dr Evans says the World Health Organisation has listed RF radiation as a possible carcinogenic) and DNA damage in the long term, the campaign claims over exposure to the type of radiation omitted by smart meters can cause headaches, insomnia, sleep disorders, depression and arrhythmias, among other things.

Dr Evans refers to a survey of health effects reported by smart meter customers from the US, a Swedish neuroscientist who that mice continually exposed to WIFI are sterile by the fifth generation and a dramatic rise in frontal and temporal brain tumours of over 50 per cent from 1999-2009 in the UK as some of the evidence of the detrimental health effects caused by smart meters. 

Official information from Public Health England's (PHE) dispute this and say there is no convincing evidence to suggest exposure to the radio waves produced by smart meters poses any health risk and that “Using mobile phones leads to greater exposures than other radio devices in widespread use by the general public, including smart meters.”

Offering another opinion, David J. Brenner Higgins, a professor of radiation biophysics at the Center for Radiological Research Columbia University Medical Center in the US, says, while it's always hard to prove something is "safe", "wireless smart power meters result in significantly less radiofrequency radiation exposure than produced by cellphones, so it is very unlikely they would be associated with adverse health effects." This a view supported by the PHE.

If  a house hold is unconcerned by radiation from mobiles phones, the health risk factors from smart meters are unlikely to keep them up at night either, and according to many reliable sources, that’s just fine.

However, it seems fair to say we don’t yet know the full impact, if any, of the increased (and increasing) long term exposure of RF radiation may have 30 to 40 years down the line on public health, we can only go on the available information.  

Another issue regularly raised by smart meter critics is the fact that smart meters essentially put all our energy data on the internet, which has the potential to be hacked.

"There have been numerous occasions where wireless smart meters have been shown to be easily hacked; for example, a group of ethical hackers showed how easy it was to hack a Discovergy [German energy supplier] smart meter less than two years ago at a conference in Berlin," she adds.

The incident Dr Evans refers to is said to have occurred when the company allowed information gathered by its smart meters to travel over an insecure link to its servers.

Should we be concerned about would be hackers trying to tamper with our energy usage data and potentially increasing our bills or cutting us off, which if done en-masse could cause a national emergency? Not according to British Gas, who has already started fitting some smart meters.

They say: "Smart meters must meet a number of security standards specified by Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). DECC has brought in a number of security consultants to ensure data is protected and to allow draft license obligations to be prepared."

The company adds that data is stored in the meter using methods "widely used across a number of industries such as banking and telecommunications" and is sent using Advanced Encryption Standard, which is more complex than what is used for internet banking.

Only meter readings are available to a utility company, not information displayed on the IHD, and for half hourly readings, as opposed to daily or monthly, the customer needs to give permission, a spokesperson says.

Speaking to an IT security expert, David Emm of Kaspersky Lab, a worldwide IT security company, he warns:

"If someone is able to intercept such transmissions, they could gather personal information, interrupt the supply to the customer, or send false data - resulting in huge bills for those affected, or loss of revenue for suppliers.

"If the interruption of power could be done for large numbers of customers at once, this could result in an outage that, before the advent of smart meters, would have meant an attack on the power supplier's systems."

He adds that encryption of data being sent and received is the key to protecting privacy and would "greatly reduce the risk of attack".

Hacking of energy data from individual homes does seem to be a possibility, just as hacking any other computer run company is – just last week an attempt to hack a Santander bank computer was foiled with 12 arrested. It’s a constant hazard of our modern, increasingly digitalised society that for the most part is navigated relatively successfully.

It’s a question of the likelihood of this happening and trust that the relevant levels of encryption and security, as required by law, is employed and data, which will remain property of the customer, is securely stored. The DECC will not make all necessary smart meter security measures public for security reasons, which seems fair enough.

However, if anyone is worried about the potential for hacking or negative health effects there is always the option to say no to a smart meter.

In the meantime, further studies and looking to the US, which is years ahead in its smart meter roll out, will hopefully provide further clarity on these issues in the near future.

A new dawn? Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.