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Smart meters: what would it take to stop the national rollout juggernaut?

Image credit: DREAMSTIME

A shortage of installers, weak mobile network signals and interoperability problems are just some of the issues plaguing efforts to get new smart metering technology installed in millions of UK homes in the next few years.

A scarcity of trained technicians capable of installing electricity and gas smart meters is the latest setback in the rush to roll out 53 million of the devices in Britain by 2020, but concerns have also been raised about security of the power supply.

The massive infrastructure endeavour, one of the biggest in the UK currently, has already been hit by a string of setbacks that could lead to costs swelling, causing acute embarrassment for the government.

Martyn Allen from charity Electrical Safety First, which sits on the national smart meter secretariat, declares it “inevitable” that the 2020 deadline would not be met, as supply companies require “a whole army” of installers to complete the herculean task.

The programme is being implemented by energy suppliers at a cost of £11bn, which will be recouped from customers through energy bills.

Official figures for the number of certified smart-meter installers suggest there are now around 7,500 working as part of the nationwide push, but it is estimated thousands more are needed to plug current and future gaps in staff rotas.

Supplier-led research group Energy and Utility Skills says there are plans to train around 6,000 dual-fuel installers by April 2018. That number is understood to take account of rumoured high attrition rates.

British Gas is attempting to attract an influx of would-be meter technicians wishing to be trained in-house for a range of roles relating to the installation project for domestic premises. For business installations, the company uses third-party contractors.

E.On, another of the big energy suppliers, has engaged personnel provider Morrison Utility Services to bolster the ranks of its installation army.

Recruitment consultancy 3R Global has stated that smart-meter installers are in demand UK-wide and is offering to pay £250 for referrals of friends and colleagues.

Some industry insiders have suggested pay rates, combined with the sometimes complicated installation process, render the job unattractive as a career choice. Mark Krull, from Logic4Training, which provides courses for technicians, denies this is the case but admits there is “a lot of pressure to increase the workforce in a short space of time. Does that lead to pressure in the supply chain further down the line? Of course it does,” he says.

The Prime Minister’s official residence, 10 Downing Street, is among a small proportion - just 10 per cent - of UK homes that currently have smart meters.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which is keeping tabs on the roll-out, has the devices operating in its Whitehall offices. The technology is yet to be deployed to its regional outposts in Sheffield and Aberdeen.

Around a quarter of all non-domestic meters currently function “in smart mode or with advanced functionality”, according to the latest figures from BEIS.

The European Union has decreed member states must implement smart metering across at least 80 per cent of households by 2020 wherever it is cost-effective to do so. Compared with equivalent projects elsewhere in Europe, the cost of the British programme appears high.

Allen says the UK could have sought to import labour from countries like Poland, Romania or any of the other EU states with mass smart metering roll-outs. Brexit might make that harder, however.

“I think everybody has recognised that, arguably, the biggest challenge is to get the people trained up to install the meters,” he adds. “You’ve got the technological muscle and its use of the communications side, but I think that, really, we have hit the point now where it’s just all about the bodies.”

The shortage could be due to the way in which the initiative has been structured. In several other EU countries, smart meters are being installed by network companies as opposed to the supply companies that were put in charge of the process in Britain.

While network companies have good reason to employ people with physical electrical engineering skills as a matter of course, supply companies potentially do not as their focus is on marketing, pricing, buying power and operating billing and credit control systems.

Across the EU, a small number of member states have opted not to sign up to the bloc’s principal smart-metering goal.

The German parliament has mandated installation of smart meters in a modest 23 per cent of homes. Initial enthusiasm for a bigger scheme gave way to civil servants apparently concluding that mass deployment of the technology would not yield sizeable enough financial benefits for customers.

Instead, it is understood a targeted programme is being carried out under which only big consumers of energy will have smart meters installed.

As the Institute of Directors put it in a policy report: “What this shows is that, were Britain...to change its mind [on smart metering], it would definitely not be alone in Europe.”

Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering specialist at the University of Cambridge, offers the view that the smart metering project “isn’t working and cannot work” in the UK. “It does, however, have support in all main political parties, and I suspect that ministers wish it would quietly die,” he says.

Could Brexit spark the ditching of a juggernaut now viewed by some critics as akin to the notoriously bungled NHS IT records system project?

As things stand, over the next three-and-a-half years, energy suppliers are required by the government to offer smart meters to all households in Britain that currently lack the devices - i.e. 90 per cent of them. There are as yet no signs of a U-turn.

In theory, regulator Ofgem could take enforcement action against any energy supplier that fails to hit the 2020 deadline, but in practice any real punishment is unlikely - not least because the terms by which success will be judged are vague.

One major technological stumbling block for the project is the notoriously poor mobile signal reception in some areas.

Where a smart meter cannot get a signal from the data network used by mobile phones, it will most of the time be unable to transmit required information to the energy supplier, rendering it useless.

E&T has heard from customers who report that efforts to install operational smart meters in their homes fell flat because the signal was simply not strong enough. Interoperability glitches concerning first-generation smart-meter devices - issues highlighted in the May 2017 issue of E&T - mean many may end up having to be replaced with newer models unless software developers can come up with a workaround.

Economist Dieter Helm is among those who believe smart metering should have been the responsibility of the electricity distribution operators from the start.

Helm, a professor of energy policy at Oxford University who has advised the government on environmental issues, says successive ministers had shown themselves to be “obsessed” with the idea of customers switching suppliers.

As a result, he states, politicians had opted to hand responsibility to suppliers rather than the distributors in command of running the actual network of towers and cables carrying power to homes and businesses.

Helm says: “This was a fundamental mistake which no other major European country has made. Meters had always been in distribution, for the very good reason that they are an essential part of the network system. This fundamental error has had consequences that now haunt the smart meter programme.”

Commenting to E&T on the current shortage of technicians, he feels the government should have been clearer about the purpose of the programme and what skills were required. “In other countries - Italy is an example - they have seen this as a broadband rollout, and in the process have bunged a smart meter out,” he says.

Smart meters were first championed within government by Ed Miliband when he was energy secretary in 2009.

The utopian vision - voiced by umbrella organisation Smart Energy GB - sees them as a step towards ‘smart homes’ and a ‘smart grid’. The latter is described as “like an internet for gas and electricity”.

Under such a scenario, household appliances would ‘talk to’ one another based on the time of the day at which they were running. The grid, meanwhile, would react to changes in energy usage. It would be like an endless feedback loop, improving efficiency and cutting emissions. Little wonder green-minded politicians were so keen.

BEIS merely insists smart meters will bring an end to estimated billing and provide customers with real-time information about energy use, helping them save money.

But just as there is a utopian vision, so there is a dystopian one. The technology could become a target for cyber attackers - terrorists or militant environmentalists - who might seek to disrupt the power supply to whole regions. This, it should be pointed out, is by no means a scenario deemed likely by all cyber-​security experts, many of whom refer to it as “scaremongering”. But, equally, many refuse to dismiss it out of hand.

Michael Lynch from US digital security company InAuth, has other concerns over the potential vulnerabilities of smart meters. “I think there will be abilities to ‘spy’ on other countries with the devices. I think you could weaponise the Internet of Things.”

The fact that some of the electronics firms making smart meters for the UK market are Chinese companies - one is effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party - has done nothing to dampen concerns.

US-based Cesare Garlati, chief security strategist for the prpl Foundation, suggests some such fears were misplaced, adding: “The real concern for this category of devices is to become part of massive botnets, potentially by the tens of millions.

“Whether a ‘Chinese’ product is more or less secure than one developed by any western, European, intelligence [agency]-friendly makers is totally debatable.”

There are also less apocalyptic predictions of a succession of relatively harmless data leaks occurring because of utilities companies’ systems, or devices themselves, being hacked.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has stated that “proportionate, practical security controls” have been put in place by the government to protect smart meters from attack by hackers.

The organisation, which is part of the intelligence agency GCHQ, stated that the system “strikes the best balance between security and business needs, whilst meeting broader policy and national security objectives”.

However, the agency is known to be still carrying out security evaluations of at least one Chinese-manufactured type of meter.

Nick Hunn, an expert in wireless technology, notes that with a “good old analogue meter”, if the device failed “it wouldn’t matter so much”. In contrast, he says, the “endlessly complex” system now being devised means there are real risks that the electricity supply to millions of homes could be one day be maliciously cut off - potentially for a lengthy period of time.

He adds: “What would London be like without electricity for three months? We now have some answers to that question coming out of Iraq and Syria, and it’s not pretty.”

Of the smart-metering programme overall, Hunn says: “It’s like a lot of government IT projects where momentum takes over from common sense and it becomes scarier to cancel it than to carry on and let someone else pick up the mess.”

The road to hell, it seems, is paved with good intentions.

Battle over metering audit rolls on

For five years, electricity systems consultant Alex Henney has been doggedly battling to see a paper relating to a dry-sounding UK government audit of gas and electricity smart metering. In 2012 he used the Freedom of Information Act to request a copy of the document from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). He was palmed off with a version so heavily redacted as to be unintelligible.

So he took the government to court - and won. The government then appealed, but to no avail. Yet still it refuses to hand the information over. The latest round of this to-ing and fro-ing is now set to take place at the Court of Appeal in London.

As of the end of 2015 the government had spent £50,000, on legal costs alone, to appeal against the earlier court judgements that found in Henney’s favour. It is thought these costs could now have swollen to as much as £120,000.

“They’ve spent all this money on keeping their incompetence from me,” says Henney. “I regard that as contemptible.” Why such stubbornness in the face of what would seem to be a relatively innocent request?

“The government started out the wrong way with smart meters,” declares Henney over a cup of tea at his home in Highgate, north London, “and they have pursued the wrong approach ever since.

“There hasn’t been anyone with the cojones to say, ‘This is nonsense.’ You just get civil servants going along with the flow and ministers who think, ‘I’m not going to be here for long so why should I cause problems?’”

Henney, who formerly held senior posts in the electricity industry, is sceptical about the rationale underpinning the smart meters roll-out and believes the contents of the audit paper might prove embarrassing for those overseeing the project.

On the other hand, it could just be that the government believes a dangerous precedent would be set by allowing civil servants’ privately-shared assessments of Whitehall schemes to be laid bare.

Since Henney launched his legal battle, DECC has become absorbed into a new body called the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

BEIS told E&T it would not comment on any ongoing legal issues.

Feedback: E&T readers share smart-meter frustrations

Exasperating smart-meter let-downs have been highlighted by engineers who have vented their frustrations with the wireless devices following a special report in the May 2017 issue of E&T.

Crowdsourced reviews suggest many customers with the gadgets have struggled with unreliable readings, permanent connection failure and problems with interoperability between suppliers. Their accounts follow calls for the GB roll-out of the devices to be paused while glitches like these are ironed out.

John Harding, a retired rolling stock engineer from Tyne and Wear, told of how his smart meter had ceased to operate for both electricity and gas when he switched from British Gas to rival supplier E.On.

He said: “I can’t even use the mobile unit to take meter readings and have had to resort to crawling into a very small cupboard under the stairs to take the reading from the new gas meter.”

Retired electronics engineer John Heaps, an IET member from Bedfordshire, said his Landis+Gyr gas and electricity smart meters, put in by British Gas installers around a year ago, have not functioned properly from day one.

Additionally, he could not provide his own meter readings online because the company’s website did not allow for people with smart meters to do this.

He said: “British Gas has estimated my use from data they have received from a previous full year. This means that the readings estimated do not agree with the meter readings. I pay by direct debit, so I have to make sure that I am not being over-​charged. I still live in hope for a solution to the problem. Perhaps a human being will arrive and read my meters.”

British Gas said it was looking into the issue.

Another dual-fuel customer, David Anson, experienced interoperability glitches like those highlighted in E&T, which led to dozens of people contacting us.

When Anson switched from British Gas to Scottish Power he found his meter switched to operating in ‘dumb’ mode.

Keith Waight, yet another customer with a British Gas-​installed smart meter, said he ran into the same problem when he attempted to switch to First Utility.

Umbrella body Smart Energy GB insists numerous users have not encountered this problem and can be “switched seamlessly”.

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