The English tea ceremony

I once watched my father-in-law making a pot of tea, and it was a fascinating study in the futility of any efforts we make in terms of energy saving.  It went something like this:

  1. Completely fill kettle
  2. Allow kettle to boil and turn itself off
  3. Switch kettle on again to ensure that the water is truly boiling, allowing it to turn off automatically
  4. Use some of the hot water from the kettle to “warm the pot”
  5. Switch the kettle on again just to be sure, waiting until it switches off at a vigorous boil
  6. Pour the water into the teapot
  7. Refill the kettle and switch on again to provide hot water lest it be necessary to top up the pot
  8. After suitable time for brewing, and pour tea
  9. Switch on the kettle again to ensure that the refill water is truly hot, waiting until it switches off
  10. Refill teapot

By the time all of this has been done, we have used something like twice as much energy as was actually needed to make the required quantity of tea. The rest of the energy has been wasted as latent heat in boiling water, heating water that wasn’t needed and reheating water that wasn’t used as soon as it was available.

I was at a Cambridge Cleantech meeting a couple of weeks ago, and despite being associated with energy and smart meters for a few years, it provided a sudden blinding realisation on the disinformation associated with smart meters.

In order to have the joy of a smart meter we, as domestic consumers, are set to spend around £15b, which will no doubt be more than £20b when it happens.  The official analysis suggests that this will be offset by benefits – but the margin between cost and benefit is very narrow, and almost certainly less than the error in numbers inevitably distorted by the political requirement to justify the policy.  A large component of the supposed benefits is related to the energy saving effect of smart meters…

…which takes me back to the English tea ceremony.  The installation of a smart meter will not of itself significantly influence the behaviour of my father-in-law, and in truth will have very little direct effect on energy consumption overall.  The energy saving benefit is a fallacy.

I suspect that the primary effect of the smart meter will be to assist the energy supplier to bamboozle the consumer with complicated and incomprehensible tariffs, presenting attractive looking deals and stinging the customer who fails to play the game.  It’s a common model in consumer pricing, as evidenced by budget airlines, mobile phones and banks.  This all works out well for the utilities, as consumers are forced to pay for the tools which will be used to manipulate them.  Any overspend (which will undoubtedly happen in a complicated IT and communications system) will be subsidised by the Government (and therefore by the taxpayer), and the utility cartel will sit back and exploit the benefits.

Let me make it clear that I am not against smart meters and smart grid.  These are tools which should enable utilities to provide reliable energy supplies in the most cost-effective way, and are fundamentally a good thing.  What is not so good is taking consumers for a ride and pretending it’s all good for them.