Big brother to switch off your fridge: Power giants to make millions – but you must pay for ‘sinister’ technology
Fridges and freezers in millions of British homes will automatically be switched off without the owner’s consent under a ‘Big Brother’ regime to reduce the strain on power stations.
The National Grid is demanding that all new appliances be fitted with sensors that could shut them down when the UK’s generators struggle to meet demand for electricity.
Electric ovens, air-conditioning units and washing machines will also be affected by the proposals, which are already backed by one of the European Union’s most influential energy bodies. They are pushing for the move as green energy sources such as wind farms are less predictable than traditional power stations, increasing the risk of blackouts.
Last night critics:
• Condemned the principle that outside forces should be allowed to control appliances.
• Warned the new sensors would add £40 to the average price of white goods for consumers.
• Hit out at the energy giants who would make millions of pounds extra profit under the scheme, as it would save them from firing up reserve generators or paying factories to switch off furnaces to quell demand. There is no suggestion that consumers will be compensated for having their appliances shut down.
The sensors will automatically detect spikes in demand for power that the grid is struggling to meet, and temporarily shut off the appliances.
Viktor Sundberg, energy strategy manager at Electrolux, warned: ‘This is Big Brother technology on a grand scale. The device inside the fridge or freezer will automatically change the way the appliance operates in response to the output of the grid.
‘This method of shutting down household appliances could to be carried out almost instantly, saving the energy companies millions because they won’t have to start up the turbines or pay huge industrial companies to cut production. Consumers are not benefiting at all and will be left paying more when they buy the appliances, as well as having their private goods controlled by outside forces.’
David Davis, the former Tory leadership candidate, said: ‘There is a Big Brother element to this – and it also shows the energy suppliers passing down their incompetence to the customers. They should be supplying energy as customers need it, not the when they want to give it.
‘There is something Soviet about this. It’s a ridiculous idea and it should be opposed. I hope the Government puts its foot down.’
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘This sinister plan smacks of over- the-top intrusion into people’s houses. It should be the choice of consumers if they want to sign up to it, not slipped into our homes through fridges and freezers.’
The National Grid – a private company that made £2.6 billion profit in 2011 – is required by law to balance supply and demand in the network.
However the EU has set a target that 20 per cent of all electricity will be generated from green sources by 2012 – but these are unreliable, making the task more difficult.
The solution proposed by the National Grid, along with its counterparts in 34 European countries, is to install the controversial devices.
The National Grid supplies alternating current to homes at 240V and an frequency of 50 hertz (Hz). But because electricity cannot be stored in bulk, there are fluctuations in this.
When demand starts to outstrip supply, the frequency drops – when there is more power than needed, it rises.
Sensors in domestic appliances would check this frequency every 0.2 seconds, and if it fell to 47Hz – a level that would risk blackouts – the devices would kick in and shut fridges, freezers and ovens down. Across millions of homes, this would cut demand significantly and so restore the balance.
The sensors could also be used if supply of electricity outstripped demand, putting power stations in danger of ‘tripping’ and shutting down temporarily. If the frequency of the supply nudged towards 52Hz, the devices could make fridges become cooler, increasing demand and balancing out the system.
The move comes on top of separate initiatives to put ‘smart meters’ for gas and electricity in all British homes by 2019, giving energy firms real-time information on individual households’ usage.
The proposals were contained in a 63-page document drawn up by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E). It has been agreed by the EU-wide body of energy regulators and was sent to the European Commission on March 27.
It is set to deliver its verdict on the proposals within three months, and they could then go to the European Parliament to be turned into legislation that would force manufacturers to install the monitors.
Appliances containing the sensors could be in shops within three years.
In its proposal, ENTSO-E stressed that shutting off appliances would only be a last resort, but admitted it could happen.
It argued: ‘The accumulated effect of switching off a large number of temperature-controlled devices will give a substantial reduction of load in the system.
‘In this way it should be able to prevent . . . large scale blackouts.’
The authorities insist appliances would only cut out for a few seconds, and that consumers will be able to set acceptable temperature ranges so fridges would not be switched off if they were already warm, and therefore food would remain fresh. But if ovens are switched off temporarily, it could affect the cooking time of meals.
Presently, the National Grid can shut down power to industrial firms to balance the grid. They are compensated in such cases, but there is no proposal to pay consumers if they face similar interruptions.
Experts believe household bills would not be affected because the scheme would just alter the time at which appliances are used, not their total energy consumption.
Adam Scorer, of Consumer Focus UK, said: ‘There is a lot more work that needs to be done before these proposals become acceptable for consumers. The costs and benefits need to be clear, the right consumer protections in place, people’s privacy assured and arrangements made so that consumers get paid for any services they provide to networks.’
Consumer groups throughout Europe have expressed ‘serious concern’ in a letter to ENTSO-E.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change admitted last night that the Government was unsure how the new technology would work.
He said: ‘There could be benefits to consumers, it could open up new ways to save on energy bills, but we also need to consider all other factors before responding to the Commission.’
A spokesman for National Grid said: ‘One of the proposed requirements is for a limited number of [future] temperature controlled devices such as fridges and freezers to have the capability to assist the real time balancing of electricity supply and demand by automatically switching off devices for short durations.
‘This should result in benefits to consumers as it will lead to a reduced requirement for additional back-up electricity sources.
‘It will have no material impact on the operation of fridges and freezers switching will be for a few seconds and only occasionally.
‘Consumers’ produce will remain cool in their fridges and frozen in their freezers.’
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