Smart energy meter will not be compulsory

Van der Hoeven wanted to make a refusal to install the smart meter punishable by a fine up to 17,000 euros or six months in jail.
By Wilmer Heck

The 'smart energy meter' will not be compulsory in the Netherlands. Minister of economic affairs Maria van der Hoeven backed down after consumer groups raised privacy concerns.

The 'smart energy meter' has a dual purpose. It provides the consumers with detailed information about their electricity bills that they can then use in billing disputes with energy providers. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, it also gives the consumer a picture of his or her energy use. For instance: the smart meter can tell you exactly what that 15-minutes shower in the morning cost you (and the environment).

When European parliament in 2006 issued a directive to member states to introduce the smart meter, it had both these issues in mind: to give the consumer control of his electricity bill and, in the process, hopefully encourage people to save more energy.

But Dutch economy minister Maria van der Hoeven, a Christian Democrat, wanted to take it one step further: she wanted to make smart meters compulsory, and a refusal to install them punishable with a fine of up to 17.000 euros or six months in prison.

Consumer organisations and privacy watchdog groups campaigned vigorously in the past few weeks to get parliament to vote against compulsory smart meters. On Tuesday, they were succesful: after it became clear that a majority of parliamentarians would vote no on a compulsory smart meter, Van der Hoeven decided to reintroduce her bill - this time making the installation of smart meters voluntary.

Adding to the debate was the publication of a report by university of Tilburg researchers, who had been commissioned by the Consumentenbond, the Netherlands' main consumer organisation, to look into the privacy aspects of the smart meters.

The report concluded that there are serious privacy issues with the smart meter:

* hourly and 15-minutes readings give away information about the consumer's habits, such as when he or she leaves the house and when he or she returns. This information could be useful to burglars.

* the smart meter provides insights into a family's living patterns and relationships "which can affect people's freedom to do as they please in the confines of their homes."

* there is a risk that information about a person's energy use will fall into the hands of third parties such as the police or insurance companies.

Labour member of parliament Diederik Samsom, who supported the original bill, was disappointed with the latest development. He feels the privacy issues have been exaggerated.

"Compared to mobile phone use, where the provider can tell the exact location of a consumer and who he or she is calling, [the smart meter] presents few problems," Samsom says. He considers that, in this case, "the benefits to society of a sustainable energy policy outweigh other concerns".

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