Nearly six million smart meters now operational in GB homes

Cambridge academic says multi-billion pound project is being 'killed off' but IET policy panel member insists he is confident it will succeed

The number of gas and electricity smart meters now operating in homes in Great Britain has reached nearly six million, fresh statistics from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy reveal.

That means a whopping 88 per cent of households nationwide are still not served by one of the new meters, which have been hailed as a means of making it easier for customers to switch electricity and gas supplier to get a better deal.

The latest figures come amid a shortage of the trained dual-fuel installers needed in order for the multi-billion pound project to be completed on target. The scheme is being funded by suppliers with the money to be recouped through household energy bills.

Initially the government had hoped to have a smart meter installed in all domestic premises nationwide - but that was later changed and the official position now is merely that every household is to be “offered” one by 2020.

This, says Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge, means the scheme is being “quietly killed off”.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph this week he said the Conservative Party’s pledge in its manifesto that “every household will be offered a smart meter” showed politicians were getting cold feet.

Anderson also attacked what he described as the Heath Robinson” design of the centralised data communications system, which is intended to make smart meters of different specifications interoperable.

The respected academic added: “It’s not tax money being wasted, as the power companies can just add their costs to your bill.”

The IET’s Energy Policy Panel (EPP) warned a government select committee three years ago that the start date for instillations should be deferred until various technical glitches were ironed out.

This week EPP member Dave Openshaw told E&T: “The stance has moved on since 2013, when that evidence to the select committee was submitted, and, to be fair, the smart meter programme has made a lot of progress since then”.

He insisted he was optimistic people would embrace smart metering technology and, ultimately, enable smart grid-type systems to be put in place.

He also said he had “every confidence” current technological challenges would be overcome.

“On balance, we do think there will be a reasonably high acceptance rate [for smart meters],” Openshaw said.

SMETS2 meters – the second generation devices, which, unlike the SMETS1 meters currently being installed in people’s homes, are automatically interoperable with the DCC – would start to be installed by the end of this year once testing has been completed, Openshaw predicted.

He said: “Until that testing is done, the suppliers aren’t going to commit themselves to huge orders of SMETS2 meters and the manufacturers aren’t going to build them in huge quantities…but hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be in that position, and then I think that’s a sensible time to make a review of what is the sensible target termination date for the programme.”

The most recent print issue of E&T highlighted a shortage of meter installers, weak mobile signals and interoperability problems as being among the challenges facing the project.

Openshaw acknowledged there was the potential for a “bow wave” in the installation programme because of a dearth of manpower, as well as “reduced functionality from the system” until the SMETS2 meters are installed.

He said: “As to whether customers will accept smart meters or not, there’s no legal obligation to do so. The hope is that consumers as a whole will understand the benefits available to them in adopting a smart meter. Certainly the actual visibility of energy consumption – you know, how much they’re using, how much it’s costing them and those sorts of things - ought to appeal to most of us.

“Most of us are now very comfortable with smartphone applications, so it’s not as though electronic interfaces to information are an unusual thing. The hope is the education programme through Smart Energy GB, for example, and suppliers’ own initiatives, will persuade the majority of customers that it will actually be a good thing for them.”

In addition, he insisted the programme would provide value for money.

“The [government's] business case and impact analysis...does show a very positive business case for doing it,” he said. “So even if you think there might be some erosion of the benefits or some increase in the cost, with the optimism bias that you apply to that impact assessment, you would expect it still to show a positive business case for doing it.”

However, Openshaw added that the completion date for the programme may have to be pushed back beyond 2020.

“The IET’s position is that the main concern is to make sure it’s a quality programme,” he said. Of course, the last thing anybody wants is for installations to not be high quality so that people will have to make revisits and so on, because that will undermine confidence in the programme.

“So on balance it would be better to delay the end date by a year say, if that means some of the current concerns over the technical problems that are currently being dealt with and also the recruitment and training programme that has to take place [can be resolved].”

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