That’s right. Britain’s smart meters are now officially the most expensive smart meters in the world. For those of you who have not been following the story, let me provide a brief précis. Back in 2010 the Government mandated that every home in Britain should have a smart gas and a smart electricity meter by 2020. Instead of using off the shelf smart meters, they decided to design their own. DECC worked with some vested industry interests to do a classic Government IT committee job, producing the most complex smart meter specification the world has seen. That design was called SMETS1 – short for Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specification. Not only was it the most expensive, but it was also insecure. When GCHQ looked at it and considered the potential implications of connecting it to our national infrastructure they demanded a redesign, resulting in the SMETS2 specification. SMETS1 meters look as if they won’t work with the SMETS2 software infrastructure, so any SMETS1 meters already installed will probably need to be replaced. Throughout this fiasco, the Government has not relaxed its requirements for every home to have a smart meter fitted by 2020, which means fitting around 50 million new meters.
Which brings us to today. The SMETS2 meters are enormously complex and are pushing the limits of the industry to design them. With the 2020 deadline barely 30 months away you’d hope that the bulk of them would be fitted by now. But I’ve just been talking to contacts in the industry who have told me that currently there are only around 80 SMETS2 meters fitted. Do the sums based on what has been spent so far on the GB smart Metering programme and you’ll find that it equates to around £28 million for each of these meters. It is an obscene example of a Government IT project going wrong. But it gets worse. Not only will the overall project cost consumers around £12 billion, it has the potential to destroy Britain’s leading position in the development of the Internet of Things. It also seems to be exerting a curse on any Government minister involved in the project, with Amber Rudd, our former Minister for Technical Illiteracy the latest to feel its effect.
A quick word of warning if you have a smart meter – don’t rush to rip it off the wall and sell it on eBay for a couple of million, as yours won’t be one of the SMETS2 ones. These 80 meters have all been fitted to the homes of staff from meter manufacturers and energy companies. That’s because they’re still prototypes which they’re trying to get to work. As I’ve said before, designing complex electronic products to be interoperable is very hard even when you know what you’re doing. And in the case of the GB smart meters, few of those involved do know what they’re doing.
If you’re wondering how I got to that estimate of £28 million, I’d like to explain. Unlike BEIS and DECC before them, I’m a firm believer in being open about where numbers come from. So whilst they’re continuing to spend our money on expensive lawyers to fight Freedom of Information requests, here’s the breakdown of how these meters have ended up costing so much.
As the Government has put pressure on energy companies to get on with meter installations, they’ve been busy installing SMETS1 meters, despite the fact they know they’ll probably have to replace them. That because they’re being threatened with draconian fines if they don’t. However, that means that all of these SMETS1 meters are essentially redundant – they’re effectively prototypes to test out the system. I’m going to assume that around 10 million of them have been fitted so far, at a total cost of £888 million for the meters and a further £414 million to install them. The latter is based on BEIS’ estimate for installation; consumer feedback suggests installations typically need multiple visits, so it’s probably a conservative estimate.
Most of the IT infrastructure for the meters to talk to has already been developed and put in place to create the DCC – the central Data Communications Company, which collates all of the readings and manages the meters. The total estimate from BEIS has recently risen from £780 million to £1 billion for the overall IT budget and I suspect around 60% of that has already been spent. Then there’s the cost of the mobile contracts to control and receive data from the meters, which is budgeted at just over £2 billion to cover the period up to the end of 2025, when the GPRS network is likely to become obsolete. Quite a large chunk of that is still to be spent as we’ve only 10 million meters out there at the moment, so I’m only going to include £65 million as having been spent so far. BEIS also identify £1.42 billion of “other” costs, which includes funding Smart Energy GB – the marketing arm of the Ministry which is trying to persuade us all to fit smart meters. In 2016 BEIS more or less doubled their budget from £97 million to £192 million, presumably because they’d already spent most of it in failing to persuade consumers that smart meters were worth having. The recent campaign they commissioned from AMV BBDO comparing smart meters to microwave ovens, kettles and TVs is one of the most facile WTF pieces of Government propaganda I’ve ever seen. Orwell’s Minitrue would have shipped all of those involved straight to Room 101. What’s scary is that I suspect it ate up most of Smart Energy GB’s new money, so I’m putting in £284 million for the total “other” spend so far.
If we add those together we get a grand total of £2.25 billion, which has already been spent, at the end of which we have 80 working SMETS2 meters (assuming they are actually working, but that’s another story). That equates to £28,141,000 per smart meter.
Fig. 1 Current smart metering spend in £ Billions
Time for a quick recap. The industry:
- Has a commitment to install 50 million smart meters by the end of 2020,
- Has currently installed around 10 million which probably don’t meet requirements,
- Has installed around 80 smart meters which might work, but we don’t know if they do,
- Has absolutely no idea of whether these meters provide any benefits, but
- Can and will add the costs of this fiasco to our energy bills.
Remember that every day which passes increases the costs that consumers will have to pay for this disaster.
It is scary that no-one knows whether there is a consumer benefit accruing from the costs of fitting smart meters. I’ve sat in a House of Commons meeting where a senior minister at BEIS told MPs that we need smart meters because energy usage is increasing year on year and smart meters will stop it. Except that’s not really true. Gas usage is increasing, but BEIS’s own figures show that electricity usage is falling every year. To justify the cost of the GB smart meters, DECC estimated the savings that customer would achieve by using In Home Displays . However, these only really influence electricity usage, not gas usage and even for electricity their effect is questionable. I’ve never seen a substantive piece of research which decouples the effect of an In Home Display on electricity usage from the underlying reduction in consumption that comes from improved efficiency in appliance design. All those A+++ marking on appliances and EU regulations for more efficient phone chargers do have a real effect. In contrast, the only strategies which reduce gas usage appear to be grants for insulation and possibly smart thermostats, neither of which are affected by smart meters. So it seems that the Government calculations of benefits are based on conflating opposing trends.
There should now be plenty of data from the smart meters which have been installed to confirm whether they do have a lasting effect on energy usage. If that were calculated, we would have a good idea of whether this programme is justified. Almost every independent analysis of smart meters here and elsewhere in the world suggests it is not. But none of that data from the UK is being released. It’s a pretty simple exercise to perform but no-one is doing it. Instead Smart Energy GB are promoting interviews using trite interviews from householders saying “how nice it is not to have estimated bills”. I think we all agree with that, but ‘ve not heard one of them being told that there is a cost associated with that. With the total program costed at £10.98 billion, that cost is £366 per household. If the smart meter lasts twenty years, that adds £18 to your bill each year. But if the meters need replacing after five years, which is looking more likely, then that’s £73 pounds each year. Until we know whether they really do help you save energy, that’s £73 that will get added to your bill purely to avoid estimated bills. Put like that, (a.k.a. telling the truth) I doubt even Smart Energy GB could sell the concept.
I don’t understand why this analysis is not being done. With ten million meters in homes, some of which have been working for several years, that data will exist. There are only three reasons that I can think of as to why we have not seen this evidence:
- The analysis has been done, but showed that BEIS’ assumption on benefits are fictional, so the evidence has been buried, or
- They’ve lost it. (But that’s not an excuse, as the meter specification allows the meter to store it, to cope with that eventuality.) Or,
- The industry doesn’t know how to do data analytics, nor the purpose of such analysis.
Given my experience of the industry, which still finds spreadsheets challenging, it is probably the last option. Although if that is the case, and they don’t know how to use data analytics to transform their business models, then it’s a bit pointless installing smart meters to provide them with that data in the first place. If they don’t know what to look for in an analysis, I’m sure any of the expensive consultants they’ve pulled in and who are charging an arm and a leg to keep this charade going will be happy to help. Or if they ask nicely, I’ll explain it for free. It’s not rocket science.
The limited lifetime of these meters brings me to another troubling aspect of the programme, which is the effect it will have on our effectiveness to become a leader in Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Despite a number of appeals from the communications industry, our smart metering program has selected a raft of obsolete communications technologies. The meters use a GB specific variant of ZigBee for the connections between meters and the ageing 2G GPRS network (which has already been pensioned off in much of the rest of the world) to send data back to the DCC and hence the energy suppliers. That latter decision is committing mobile network spectrum to continue to support obsolete technology just at the point where the rest of the world in investing in infrastructure to support emerging standards for massive deployments of narrow band IoT (NB-IoT) cellular communications.
Kickstarting a new comms technology is always a chicken and egg situation. Until there is network infrastructure and cellular coverage available, device manufacturers are loath to design low cost sensors. This keeps the price of sensors high. As a result, few are deployed and the network operators argue that there is no demand to fund a network. It’s a Catch 22, where nothing happens. Last year the GSMA recommended that EC member countries used their smart metering deployments as the lever to break this impasse, providing the momentum for millions of connections. China is doing exactly that. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Chinese companies disclosed that they deployed around 10 million NB-IoT nodes last year and plan to raise that to 180 million by the end of 2018. Unless the UK Government comes up with some large projects to stimulate deployment at a similar scale, our IoT companies, which are some of the best in the world, will lose a test bed and direct their development elsewhere. We can currently claim to lead in many areas of IoT. That is threatened unless we can deploy at scale. There is no better way to do that than a radical reboot of the Smart Metering program.
I would suggest to Richard Harrington – the current Minister in charge of accurate energy bills, that he takes the following steps:
- Put an immediate stop to deployment and further development of the current programme.
- Provide an independent analysis of current smart meter data to find out what the real benefits are and generate an evidence base.
- Use this evidence base to generate the functional requirements for a second-generation smart metering deployment.
- Work with experienced companies to develop and deploy smart meters which exploit the synergies of the new IoT networks.
Or to put it another way, stop wasting money and apply some common sense. Smart meters can be good. Bad smart meters are not.
Smart Metering does seem to be a poisoned chalice in the career of any Minister in charge of it, regardless of their political affiliation. Ed Miliband lost his Prime Ministership, Chris Huhne had to resign for perverting the course of justice and Amber Rudd has just lost her role as Home Sectretary. Regardless of the reasons for their fall, their inaction in stopping so disastrous a project has cost the consumer dear, so I suspect few tears will be shed for any of them. One can only hope that the present incumbent at BEIS – Richard Harrington, has enough integrity, intelligence and business expertise to see the scale of the mess and bring it to a close before the Smart Metering curse halts his Parliamentary ambitions. Perhaps he should consider for once that it might be important to put the interest of constituents and country before the vested self-interest of the industry and his civil servants.
Read more about this Government disaster at www.nickhunn.com