EU smart meter optimism dampened by slow uptake 

Despite the European Union's push for smart meter deployment, a comprehensive review reveals a mixed picture of progress. Nnamdi Anyadike investigates the intricate challenges in navigating the transition to smart energy meters.

Among the climate and energy targets for 2020 was a requirement for European countries to deploy smart metering for at least 80% of electricity consumers. Credit: Vitalij Terescsuk via Shutterstock

The uptake of smart meters across Europe has been more sluggish than anticipated, despite a heavy push over the years by the EU and individual member states.

Among the climate and energy targets for 2020 was a requirement for European countries to deploy smart metering for at least 80% of electricity consumers.

However, a review of smart meter deployment in the EU by telecom and utility software-as-a-service provider triPica last year shows that while some countries finally met this target in 2023, a significant number still had not. Indeed, some governments have even abandoned the target altogether.

Sweden was an early leader, reaching 100% coverage with the deployment of automated ‘smart’ meters beginning as far back as 2003. Finland has also achieved a 100% rollout, with households receiving their electricity bills based on actual meter readings since 2014. Spain reached 100% installation in 2018 (it was actually the first country in the EU to do so), Estonia 98% in 2017 and Denmark achieved nearly 80% coverage in 2019. Some of these front-runners are already replacing ‘old’ smart meters with more modern ones.

However, a number of EU countries are still behind on their targets. Germany initially decided against a smart meter rollout. Then, last year, the German Government adopted a draft law to begin the rollout of smart meters across the country. From 2025, rollouts will become mandatory with binding deadlines to achieve 100% coverage by 2030.

Rollouts in France have been patchy. Trial rollouts were undertaken in 2010 and again between 2013 and 2015, followed by an official nationwide launch in 2018. Ireland didn’t begin its rollout until 2019 but claims to be on course for every house having a smart meter installed by 2024. Portugal was also a late starter; however, EDP Distribuição, the Portuguese distribution system operator, says that by 2025 the country will have reached full coverage.

Meanwhile, Belgium aims to reach its 80% target by 2024. Lithuania was aiming for 2023, but state energy company Ignitis has pushed that back to 2025. In contrast, the Czech Republic, Greece, Croatia and Cyprus have decided against a smart meter rollout altogether, supposedly as a result of the countries’ inability to meet “a minimum level of innovation”, according to Viviana Vitto from Enel.

Meanwhile, in the UK there is a real fear that the government’s 2025 deadline for offering smart meters to all homes could be missed. The original deadline was 2019. However, by late 2023 the figure for smart meter penetration stood at a mere 57%. In response, the UK Government’s Energy Act 2023 gave it new powers to deliver a smart meter rollout by 2028.

New rules to allay data breach fears

One of the concerns voiced by electricity consumers across Europe is the potential for privacy to be compromised as household consumption data is transmitted to a supplier. However, in June 2023, the European Commission adopted EU rules on access to electricity metering and consumption data. These aim to further protect and empower consumers and were just the first of a number of such regulations, which will be put in place between now and 2025. Subsequent regulations will focus on data relating to customer switching, demand response and other services.

“Consumers will be able to get easy access to their metering data and also give permission for data on their energy consumption or generation to be used by third parties in ways which benefit them,” the Commission said in a press release. This might include, for example, receiving a tailor-made estimation of what contract would be best and cheapest to meet their energy needs, renewable energy installations or energy savings. The adoption of the implementing act follows an intensive development phase and stakeholder consultation. Network operators were closely involved and are key to the new rules’ rollout.

In the UK, smart meters send readings to a household’s energy supplier but are not supposed to store the consumer’s name, address or bank details. Energy companies insist that only they can see the data and information cannot be passed on to a third party without the consumer’s consent. However, a Personal information charter drawn up by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, does contain a loophole that allows for information to be disseminated to third parties in certain circumstances: organisations, with which a household’s energy supplier already has a contract, may be granted access to the information collected from its meter. The police and industry bodies involved in preventing and detecting theft or fraud could also be given access to the data. This is in accordance with UK data protection law.

Public reluctance reflects ‘pros and cons’

Despite regulatory attempts to get households to adopt smart meters at a faster pace, the public’s reluctance reflects the by now well publicised pros and cons of switching away from regular meters. On the upside, smart meters can help households keep tabs on their energy use by making bills more accurate. Energy use is transmitted directly to the supplier, enabling it to know exactly how much consumers are using and what to charge. This direct method has the added convenience of households no longer having to submit household meter readings every month or quarter. Analysts at Cornwall Insight also suggest smart meters can support Britain’s energy security and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and imported gas.

However, the supposed drawbacks of smart meters have also been well aired in the media. One perceived drawback is their susceptibility to hacking. There are also suggestions that smart meters can lose their ‘smart’ functionality. Such a loss would leave a household with nothing more than an expensive meter. This has become an issue with first-generation smart meters, many of which now no longer function properly and need an upgrade. A report in the Telegraph said many households only became aware of the problem when they switched energy provider. Upgraded communications networks meant their meters became unable to send readings automatically. Furthermore, a regulatory loophole means energy suppliers are not required to replace them with more modern versions. This is due to Ofgem’s rule that smart meters are only required to be operational by 2025. An additional problem likely to affect UK households are planned hardware upgrades in central and southern England following the phase-out of 2G and 3G mobile networks by 2033.

The deployment of smart meters across Europe has been marked by a diverse landscape of progress and challenges. While frontrunner countries like Sweden, Finland, Spain, Estonia and Denmark have achieved, or are nearing, 100% coverage, others such as Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Portugal and the UK face delays, varying timelines, or have abandoned altogether the ambitious targets set by the EU.

The slow uptake is influenced by a range of factors, including concerns about data privacy, susceptibility to hacking and other technical issues. Despite efforts by regulatory bodies and the European Commission to address these concerns and facilitate consumer empowerment, public reluctance persists. As the EU continues to implement new regulations to protect consumer data and encourage adoption, it remains to be seen how individual countries will navigate the complex landscape of smart meter deployment, balancing the benefits of energy efficiency with the need for secure and reliable technologies.