Call to capitalise on smart meter roll-out delay

15 May 2013
By Edd Gent
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Dr Martyn Thomas told the Government to use the time afforded by the smart meter roll out delay to formalise specifications for the system

Dr Martyn Thomas told the Government to use the time afforded by the smart meter roll out delay to formalise specifications for the system

The IET has called for the government to capitalise on the smart meter roll-out delay to formalise specifications for the system.

Dr Martyn Thomas, chairman of the IET’s IT policy panel, gave evidence yesterday to the Energy and Climate Change Committee on the government’s smart meter roll-out program after the project was delayed last week.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced last Friday that the introduction of energy smart meters in 30 million UK homes will be delayed for more than a year, with the first stage of the roll-out not starting until autumn 2015.

DECC claimed the decision was due to bidders for the data and communication infrastructure required to support the roll-out asking for more time to design and test their systems.

While many commentators have criticised the delay Thomas said the government should take advantage of the time to formalise specifications for the system which are currently expressed informally, leading to the danger of “inconsistency, ambiguity and contradiction”.

“We would press very strongly that the time we now have before the mass roll-out should be used, in part, to formalise and properly analyse the specifications for the meters, for the overall architecture and for the security properties and to prove those things are consistent.

“We know how to do that, it’s not expensive and there’s time in the program to do that.”

Thomas pointed out that the smart meter program would serve as the basis for the ultimate goal of a smart grid and that it was important not to make mistakes in the early stages of the project.

“The roll-out timescales really do need to be based on the engineering realities rather than determined by judgements made by politicians or by senior civil servants for political reasons,” he said.

“If we don’t do that we will inevitably make mistakes and get it wrong and we will get cost and time overruns. We will make mistakes that have to be fixed later.”

The costs of the roll-out, now due to be completed by 2020, will be passed on to consumers in their bills but DECC estimates that smart metering will bring a net benefit of £6.7bn.

But GMB, the union for workers in the energy sector, says the lack of clarity from government has allowed some energy companies to do little on smart meters in the hope they can “scupper the whole agenda”.

Gary Smith, GMB national secretary for Energy, said: “The slippage in the time line for the full scale roll out of smart meters is bad for jobs and customers. It is a signal that DECC is in a mess and the government is struggling over energy policy.

“Smart meters are good for customers. Research tells us customers save 5 per cent on energy bills. Experience in America shows it is more. Smart meters are key in the government’s agenda to make it easier for customers to switch suppliers.

“The lack of progress on smart meters has undermined confidence for those investing in the industry. More jobs could and should have been created by now. The lack of clarity from government has allowed some energy companies to do little on smart meters in the hope they can scupper the whole agenda.

“All energy companies must be compelled to hit clear targets on smart meters by a specified time frame. If we don't have these clear commitments the timetable will slip further.”

But the British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers Association (BEAMA), which represents manufacturers involved in the roll-out, said it welcomed the announcement.

“The postponement of the mass roll-out to 2015 will allow sufficient time for all the industry players to develop and test the systems required to make the roll-out a complete success,” it said in a statement.

Stuart Ravens, principal energy and sustainability technology analyst at Ovum, said giving retailers like British Gas and EDF responsibility for the smart meter roll-out had created some unique issues.

"Ovum has for some time been critical of the selection process for smart meters,” he said. “In all other deployments worldwide, metering is the responsibility of network operators, not retailers. So each network operator is responsible for discrete geographic areas and able to select the right communications technology for its area. In practice, this is usually a hybrid of different communications.

“In the British deployment, retailers have no geographic constraints, nor have they historically shown much interest in trialling and testing a variety of communications technologies. With very few exceptions, the smart meters deployed in Britain so far have relied on cellular-based communications, with mixed results.

"DECC decided, in its wisdom, to divide Britain into three regions and invited tenders for each of these regions. Part of the DECC's tendering process was to request proof that each communications technology would work in the British deployment.

“However, it did not commission any trials itself. If the tendering process were to proceed as previously planned, Britain could have commissioned a communications network for over 50 million meters that had not been properly tested.

"The DECC's decision to delay the tendering process by at least a year to perform more tests is welcome, but it does beg the question: why did it take the DECC so long to recognise its previous folly?"

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