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Software engineers in race against time to make smart meters work properly

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The Government is facing fresh calls for it to freeze its planned multi-billion pound rollout of smart meters as technical specialists rush to upgrade existing devices.

The UK government is today facing fresh calls for it to pause the multi-billion pound smart meters roll-out after it emerged millions of such devices already in operation in homes nationwide may need to be de-installed because of a basic design fault.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy admits the first generation smart meters are still not interoperable with the centralised data Data Communications Company (DCC) hub, which is run by outsourcing giant Capita as part of a £175million government contract.

Software engineers working for a major supplier of smart meters are now hurriedly trying to find ways of upgrading the kit so it can communicate properly with the DCC and vice versa.

The deadline by which all homes must have a gas or electricity smart meter is the end of 2019, but so far only 10 per cent of homes have one - meaning technology specialists trying to iron out the problem are engaged in a race against the clock.

In the event of their efforts falling flat there would be no option but to manually remove meters that have already been installed and to swap these with newer, more sophisticated ones.

Such a scenario would be a huge embarrassment for the government as it would lead to the £11 billion programme ballooning in costs, which would be passed on to consumers through their household energy bills.

Some people with smart meters have already found that theirs effectively revert to being “dumb” when they switch to a different supplier.

Umbrella organisation Smart Energy GB insisted numerous users had not encountered this problem, however, and could be “switched seamlessly”. It is not known exactly how many households have dud smart meters installed.

With first-generation so-called SMETS-1 smart meters currently stymied by their lack of interoperability and the next generation of devices, called SMETS-2, yet to come on stream, there is a major risk that the original goal of having a smart meter in every home in by the start of 2020 is now impossible.

To date, around six million SMETS-1 gas and electricity meters have been installed in homes across the UK. By law, no household can be compelled to have one.

Nick Hunn, an expert in wireless technology, said early adopters may soon face significant hassle unless a workaround can be found to give already installed meters the functionality of the incoming SMETS-2s.

“There is a hope the meters could be upgraded remotely,” he said. “That’s the hope. The problem is that this has not really been designed into them with any degree of testing. A number of utilities companies are a little bit unsure about how safe that would be and if it would work.”

It is possible some utilities companies may also be initially reluctant to allow SMETS-1s to be connected to the DCC because that would make it easier for their customers to switch to a competitor.

Alan Whitehead, shadow energy minister, said upgrading SMETS-1s would give an “enormous boost” to the thus far slow-paced roll-out, which has enjoyed cross-party support, and which he said he approved of in general.

But he added it would be prudent to press pause on the scheme while testing of upgrading techniques was ongoing. He also said he did not know whether upgrading SMETS-1s to make them equivalent to SMETS-2s would ultimately prove possible.

“Part of the problem at the moment, I think, is that because the deadline has been set, the concentration is on heads down and get on with it,” the Labour MP told E&T.

But he added: “This is increasingly becoming head down and get on with it regardless of the improbabilities of actually getting on with it in its present form.”

Bill Wright, from the Electrical Contractors’ Association, said smart meters would bring benefits but added that the government’s case for the new technology was “a bit nebulous”. 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said smart meters would shave £300 million off energy bills in 2020 alone, and they insisted the roll-out would not be paused while upgrading work was carried out.

A departmental spokesman said: “The technology will bring an end to estimated billing, provide real-time information about their energy use helping households keep bills down. Energy suppliers must complete the roll-out by the end of 2020”.

Do you have a smart meter you have encountered problems using or switching suppliers with? Contact E&T's Josh Loeb on jloeb@theiet.org

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