There’s plenty of talk about Smart Meters currently, but what exactly are they and more particularly, what will they offer EV drivers in Northern Ireland, and when?

What Is A Smart Meter?

A Smart Meter, just like your existing meter, measures the electricity you use (gas smart meters are available too). Several EVANI members are already using Smart Meters here, as part of the ongoing NIE Networks trial. These devices will replace the old units, often found in a box on the outside wall of a house, or somewhere inside in a ‘meter box’.

There were issues with the first smart meter standard, known as SMETS1. NI will be going straight to the improved 2nd generation SMETS2 units instead. There will be a fundamental difference in the way they will be rolled out here too. In GB smart meters are supplied by energy providers, this has led to problems when consumers want to move from one supplier to another. In Northern Ireland it looks like our Distribution Network Operator (DNO) NIE Networks will provide the Smart Meters instead. These changes should help avoid much of the pain experienced in other regions and other learnings should help reduce the issues seen in recent news.

Agile Tariffs

Currently domestic electricity customers here have the choice of a regular 24 hour meter with a single price for all their electricity, or an Economy 7 one with separate day and night rates. In the future, Smart Meters will allow our energy usage to be measured for each 30 minute period and this is the change that will ultimately bring ‘Agile Tariffs’ to Northern Ireland.

Agile tariffs have the ability to change the price you pay for electricity on each of those 48 half-hour slots across the day, based on how the wholesale cost changes over the same periods.

The lack of availability of these tariffs in NI is often raised by our members, as they look enviously at the low rates currently available in GB and RoI. While the cheapest E7 night rate in NI is £0.1399 at the time of writing, prices with agile tariffs can fall to pennies.

In fact, they aren’t just lower than anything available here, they actually go negative on some occasions, meaning that during the recent windy months consumers were paid to use electricity during certain times. These tariffs can further reduce the running costs of an electric vehicle, and in GB they can be a fraction of what it costs here currently. Some smart meter users were also paid (a minimum of £3) for every kWh they saved over certain events last winter.

It should be noted that agile tariffs will most likely offer shorter periods at the lowest prices. For example, if you are currently used to 7 hours on the cheapest (night) rate, this may change to a 2 to 4 hour period instead. Agile tariffs will also lead to more expensive pricing during peak demand, usually between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

Looking at the experience of users in Ireland, some customers switched from day/night meters to Smart Meters before there were any tariffs available to take advantage of, leading to higher bills in some instances. Talking to local energy suppliers there are worries of a lag between the meter roll out and suitable tariffs becoming available here too. We hope that the Executive will be working to ensure this does not happen. Consumer protections must be in place for our rollout, guaranteeing users have access to their data and are ready to make informed decisions.

Rewarding Flexibility

As demand on the electricity grid nears capacity, gas-fired ‘peaker plants’ come online. These are power stations that stand by all day, ready to kick in and take up the slack. They are incredibly expensive assets that we are all paying for through our bills.

As an alternative to increasing generation, we can reduce demand instead. Industrial users are already paid for this ‘Load-Shedding’ and ‘Flexible Demand’ like this is a cheaper alternative to building and running more fossil fuelled power plants and putting more copper in the ground. Shaving these demand peaks allows us to do more with less, making sure everyone still gets the energy they need, while reducing the requirement for expensive new infrastructure.

EV drivers (along with heat pump users) are probably the best placed domestic consumers to provide this ‘Demand Side Response’. While it’s hard to shift the energy consumption from say everyone turning on their oven at dinner time, it is relatively easy to move the time an electric vehicle is charged. Our survey shows many people only charge a few times a month meaning lots of drivers are not only able to shift the time they charge, but also the day too. For example, if you normally charge your car once every 5 days, and you receive notification that the excess wind tomorrow night will see a unit price of £0.04 between 2am and 6am, then you are very likely to hold off until then. NIE Networks are currently working on an Intelligent EV Charging Trial that would automate this process, and of course you’d be able to override it if you do need to charge tonight instead.

While not everyone will be able to shift this level of demand, most homes should be able to at least move the use of their large appliances (washing machine, dryer, dishwasher). These strategies and the financial incentives to nudge consumers to change their habits, fundamentally rely on us having smart meters installed first.

This will also result in less wind farm curtailment, reducing the incredible amount of indigenous, clean, wind energy we dump each year and along with battery storage like this, our new flexible smart grid will allow us to better match our energy demands to our intermittent renewable production. Already almost half of all the electricity consumed in NI comes from renewables, with a target for 80% by 2030 set in our Climate Change Act.

Remote Reads, Faster Fixes

These meters are part of the digitisation of the grid. They connect to a wireless network and send your usage information automatically. That means no one has to visit your home to read the meter, and no more estimates along with their potential for nasty shocks on your future bills.

Smart meter data will also allow our TSO (Transmission System Operator) SONI to better understand what is going on with small scale generation and with how demand behaves, potentially opening up more grid capacity for these types of connections.

Our DNO lacks information on the lower levels of the grid and Smart Meters will help them too. One immediate advantage to consumers is the ability for NIE Networks to find faults much more accurately, leading to faster repairs and less downtime when there is an outage.

Measure, Change, Save, Repeat

Another advantage of Smart Meters is their accompanying energy display. Whether this is a physical unit somewhere in the home, or an app on your smartphone, the ability to measure and display your consumption and costs in real time is the first step in making meaningful change.

For example, you might notice that your energy cost on the day you ran your washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher, was double that of the previous day and decide to start running your appliances during a cheaper period instead. Or perhaps seeing what your gaming PC is costing to run, might make you more likely to put it to sleep more often. Without having the consumption data that the SM provides, it’s unlikely you’ll make these changes.

Northern Ireland Timeline

The Department for the Economy completed their latest Smart Meter Cost-benefit Analysis in December 2022 and went on to publish the report in June of 2023. They also used their social media that month to share the news that they had begun the “planning phase for the implementation“. It’s still unclear as to what the opt in or out process will look like here or who will pay for them.

Currently the signs are that DfE will release their rollout plan by the end of this year. 2025 will likely be used to create and award the tender, meaning the first units may not be installed here until 2026 at the earliest. That will likely make Northern Ireland the last country in Western Europe to roll out smart meters. While this has left consumers disadvantaged and unable to access agile tariffs so far, it should also provide something in the way of a silver lining too as we’ve had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other regions.

Smart Meters are coming to Northern Ireland and they offer the chance of a cheaper, greener, more efficient future.

Let’s make sure we use them to full effect.

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