Do you remember when energy supplies were simple? There was gas and there was electricity. That was it. You used a certain amount of gas and electricity and you paid what you were asked. Now you’ve got lots and lots of choice, which is clearly a very good thing.
Even very good things can have a few minor problems, though. And one of the problems with the UK energy market is that customers can sometimes find it very confusing. One of the reasons for this is that, as of last December, there were no fewer than 62 companies supplying gas or electricity in the UK. Multiply that by the number of tariffs each company is offering, and it’s easy to understand why customers sometimes feel overwhelmed and take the approach of putting their heads in their hands and quietly sobbing ‘Take what you want, please just keep the lights on…’. And that’s before mentioning other factors like smart meters. And solar panels. And smart meters and solar panels and whether the meters interfere with the panels.
Confused? Let Look After My Bills explain.
How solar panels work
If we use the words ‘photovoltaic cells’, you don’t have to worry that we’re going to go all science and technology on you. This is just a description of the interior of a solar panel, which sits up on your roof, soaking up sunlight and using those photovoltaic cells to turn that sunlight into electricity.
You don’t have to worry about the fact that you live in the UK, with its fabled two days of really sunny weather every summer, because solar panels still generate electricity on cloudy days, just not as much as they do when the sun is genuinely beaming down. Once you’ve had solar panels installed, they’ll feed electricity into a meter in your home and then on to your electric supply. The electricity you use from your solar panels is free, and you only pay if you have to fall back on the power from your supplier.
It gets even better
In fact, under the feed-in tariff mechanism, which ended in March 2019, and the proposed Smart Export Guarantee tariff (which is due to start in 2020), customers will actually get paid for any left-over energy they produce which is then fed back into the national grid.
What was that about smart meters?
Well, there have been some concerns that smart meters might interfere with solar panels, and impact on the amount customers end up paying. But first of all you may have a few questions about the meters themselves. Don’t worry, we’ve come prepared for that:
How do smart meters work?
In simple terms, smart meters do two thing that make old fashioned ‘dumb meters’ look… well, pretty dumb. They send readings back to your energy supplier in real time, meaning that the actual amount of energy you use is tracked in real time. By doing this, they bring an end to the risk of getting an estimated bill that’s not very accurate.
In addition to this, they send signals to an In Home Display (IHD), a small device which shows how much gas and electricity you’re using at any moment. Think about all those times you’ve told your kids they need to turn the lights off when they go out because you’re not Bill Gates/Rockerfeller/Insert billionaire of your choice. Well now you’ll be able to point to the IHD and say ‘See?’
More seriously, it’ll enable you to monitor how much energy you use and take steps to bring the numbers down.
Do I have to have a smart meter?
No you don’t. The government is keen to get them in as many homes as possible, because they think smart meters will help to reduce consumption and bring UK wide emissions down. That’s why they’ve made it compulsory for the bigger energy companies to offer smart meters to their customers, but you have every right to say ‘no thank you’. If you do want one, here’s how to get a smart meter for free.
Can they be hacked?
Some people worry that the information a smart meter is sending back to your supplier, and back and forth between the meter and the IHD, could leak or be hacked into. While no digital platform is completely secure, there are two things to consider:
- The communication takes place over a private network, not the public internet, making it harder to break into.
- The details shared by smart meters don’t include any financial information. You might conclude that if a hacker wants to waste time and energy finding out exactly how much gas you used running your central heating in October last year, then they’re quite welcome to bore themselves senseless.
So do smart meters interfere with solar panels?
The answer to this question depends, up to a point, on what you mean by interfere. A smart meter won’t stop your solar panels working and generating electricity, and it won’t alter the amount of electricity you get to use.
The main issues some people have reported when coping with a combination of solar panels and smart meters is that the meters connected to the solar panels are analogue meters, or what we like to call ‘dumb’ meters.
This means that they can’t communicate with the smart meter, and so your IHD won’t reflect the electricity that you’re generating and either using or selling back to the grid.
The good news is that, despite this, your IHD will still show you exactly how much energy you’re taking from the supplier and paying for, which means you’ll always know exactly how much you’re spending.
There’s every chance that future versions of solar panels and smart meters will have ironed out this glitch, but in the meantime your solar panels will still save you money on your energy bills.
Whether you’ve got solar panels or not, the surest way of making sure you’re not overpaying on your energy bills is to come to Look After My Bills and ask us to switch you to the best (and cheapest) possible tariff.