Cover image from E&T magazine June 2017

How smart is the UK's smart meter project?

Image credit: Getty Images

Can you remember the last time you answered the doorbell and on opening the door heard the once familiar words “Come to read the meter”?

I can, because it was just a matter of weeks ago. As seems to be the case in many other UK households, our smart meter has not yet meant the end of estimated or manual readings and the latest issue's cover story finds that’s one of the more minor problems with the smart meter rollout in this month’s special power issue.

In the long run, smart meters will help to keep the lights on while saving energy in the smart grid. As the demand for electricity grows with the population it will have to be managed better than it is today, and the smart grid will eventually give consumers more choice over their energy supplier and how, as well as when, they use that energy. It will also help the energy companies manage power supplies remotely to prioritise users where necessary. 

The smart grid will help to balance supply and demand. As in many other areas of the Internet of Things, aggregating data should help to make more efficient use of the existing infrastructure. Smart meters will one day be sending and sharing their big data in the smart grid, but not yet. It’s just one of the technical teething problems we’ve heard from E&T readers.

Smart meters could also help to grow the infrastructure by allowing microgeneration projects such as small-scale solar and wind-generation installations to feed more power into the grid. These are growing fast but the new entrants are coming up against legal and business barriers. 

Energy tariffs have been much debated in the UK’s election campaign. Smart meters should eventually help to bring prices down but it will probably push them up first as the rollout is now forecast to cost a whopping £11bn. It also appears to be running way behind schedule. Just over five million smart meters have been installed so far, which leaves a long way to go to reach the target of all UK households by 2020. That’s not made any easier by a shortage of installers.

Smart meter programme statistics

Smart meter programme statistics

Image credit: E&T

Smart meters were a European initiative but it doesn’t have to be done the way the UK is doing it, as Germany demonstrated with its target to put smart meters into just the 23 per cent of homes that will benefit most.

To summarise, the smart meter rollout has not got off to the best of starts and, while it is an important and worthy programme, it’s also an incredibly expensive one. Perhaps the next government should look to how it is being implemented elsewhere and re-think things to find the most cost-effective way to meet the long-term objectives. Not only will this help to meet environmental targets, it will also keep the lights on in future decades.

I have no reason to regret getting a smart meter. It was free, after all, and it takes up less space in the cloakroom. It certainly looks a lot smarter, albeit not as smart as this month’s cover star Albert Breugard.


E&T magazine cover June 2017

Albert was a real smart meter reader

Image credit: Getty Images

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