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UK government should endorse security of smart meters, say MPs

The UK government should endorse the security of smart meters to help build confidence in their use, a committee of MPs has recommended.26 Sep 2016

The Science and Technology Committee said "unwarranted concerns" over smart meter security, reported in the media, have the potential to reduce public trust in the smart metering programme.

"We recommend that the government consider further how to communicate the level of thought that has gone into designing a secure system for smart metering," the Committee said in a new report.

In a statement provided to the Committee, the government offered its reassurances on smart meter security.

"The media reports relating to 'loopholes' in the smart meter system are based on misunderstanding," the government said. "Security lies at the heart of the smart metering system and has been a key consideration at every stage of system development to ensure there are no ‘loopholes’. The system operates on a national scale and has been designed as a secure end-to-end system, not just a collection of meters, energy suppliers and other components that have evolved individually."

"DECC, working with GCHQ and industry experts, designed the smart metering system with layers of security controls that can practicably be implemented by industry participants. Detailed threat modelling of hypothetical attacks, errors and failures has been undertaken to ensure these controls are proportionate to the current threat landscape and, together with trust modelling, cryptography and other controls that have been applied, are designed to ensure that the system is as secure as it needs to be in relation to this threat landscape," it said.

The UK government's stated policy is for every home and business in the country to have a smart meter installed if they wish by the end of 2020. One aim of the policy is to help people and businesses better manage, and reduce, their energy consumption and bills.

According to government statistics, there are already over 3.6 million smart and advanced meters operating in Great Britain. The "mass rollout" of smart meters is to begin "in the coming weeks", the Science and Technology Committee said. Up to 53m could be installed by the end of 2020.

The Committee said that the government should invest more in explaining the benefits of smart meters to the public to encourage their take up.

It said: "The government needs to do more to communicate the national benefits of smart metering alongside the potential cost savings and efficiencies for individual consumers. This was a weakness of the government’s evidence check statement, and relates to a lack of clarity over the ‘problem’ that smart meters aim to address. In its response to this report, the government should provide further information on how it expects smart metering to affect the required energy generation capacity of the network and the mix of energy generation sources."

Earlier this year, when the Committee began compiling evidence on the government's smart metering policy, specialist in commercial energy contracts Lindsay Edwards of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the "active engagement" of home owners would be required if smart meters are to deliver predicted reductions in energy consumption and bills.

"The large-scale roll out of smart meters will be vital if we are to achieve any meaningful progress in reducing energy demand, through demand side response, for example," Edwards said. "Reductions in energy demand are forecast to be critical if the UK is to meet its carbon reductions targets and transition to a lower carbon future."

"That said simply installing smart meters across the country is likely to be of relatively limited benefit: in order to realise their full potential and for initiatives such as Time of Use tariffs to work, consumers will need to engage actively with smart meters and understand how they can be used to save them money and reduce energy use," she said.

Smart metering could prompt energy suppliers to develop Time of Use tariffs. However, in its report, the Committee said their introduction could present challenges for the government and energy companies.

It said: "There is an extensive range of studies providing evidence on the likelihood and scale of consumers changing their usage patterns in response to Time of Use tariffs. Some evidence suggests that driving genuinely significant change could require a level of differential pricing which might be commercially, and potentially politically, difficult."