How smart are smart meters?

How smart are smart meters?

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The Victorian State Government legislated in 2009 that power industry distributors had to install so-called smart meters in every property. This was not done as many assume to save consumers money. Rather the government has resorted to a quick fix scheme in order to deal with the high demand on the existing electrical infrastructure.

By Graham Beatty, Socialist Party

With short-term profits in mind upgrading cable sizes and infrastructure to deal with increased loads is seen as a financial burden. Smart meters are able to carry out load shedding which means distributors can remotely switch off or reduce loads. It also allows complex tariffs to be implemented where in exchange for reduced power bills house occupants can agree to reduce their power consumption during peak periods.

Right-wing radio shock jock Neil Mitchell from 3AW has lead the charge in his attacks on smart meters but he never mentions that the primary cause of escalating power bills is the privatised power industry. Rather he is reflecting the power distributors’ annoyance at having to carry out the enormous task of installing meters that in the short term is costing them money.

In a rational economic system smart meters would be an important improvement. They would help us manage our power more efficiently and do away with the need for menial tasks like meter reading. Meter readers could be freed up to share out other available work and reduce the working week.

On the positive side the installation of the meters means that many thousands of dangerous and faulty meter boards have been fixed. On the down side the power companies have purchased mass produced meters made in sweat shops in China. While the old meters have functioned in many cases for over 50 years, the new smart meters are expected to last for as little as 15 or 20 years.

The Victorian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has tried to regulate smart meter installation and has workplace agreements in place with several of the major installers like Skilltech. While paying lip service to the idea of safety these installation companies are of course driven by targets and profits.

A significant number of smart meter installers are contractors who are paid by the meter rather than by the hour. The vast majority of electrical accidents related to smart meters, like the reverse polarity incident which led to a woman receiving two electrical shocks, have come from work done by contractors who bypass safety procedures in pursuit of more installs. While the pay is relatively good the working conditions are amongst the worst in the electrical industry.

The government has sought to cut across opposition to the meters by introducing a law making them mandatory. The legality of this law is questionable and smart meter installers are instructed to not install meters if householders refuse. That said approximately 80% of properties in Victoria already have the meters installed. The plan now is for them to be rolled out nation-wide.

Some anger has been misdirected at electricians installing the meters by sections of the public. The truth is that the real problem is the fact that far from being an essential service, electricity is seen as just another commodity that private providers make profits off. Only a publicly owned and controlled power system run on the basis of people’s needs would see the problems with infrastructure and working conditions overcome.

At the same time socialist planning of the power industry is the best way to implement the vital transition from unsustainable brown coal power to environmentally friendly sustainable power.