It was all meant to be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with smart meters installed in every home in Great Britain, with an extra two years to finish off the “difficult” ones. That was quickly revised to make the end of 2020 the target date, since when it has been consistently pushed back as the industry has struggled with executing a badly thought out programme. Last month, the latest figures released by the UK Government for working smart meters (the graph excludes the ones which have been fitted but aren’t working), show that we haven’t quite made it to the half-way mark yet, with electricity smart meter fittings approaching the 50% mark, with gas lagging slightly behind. It’s taken around 8 years to get this far, which suggests that we probably won’t have the rollout complete this side of 2030. Whilst the number of installations is increasing, within the next few years, the connection technology they use looks as if it will become obsolete, so we’re going to have to start replacing or upgrading many of those already installed.
The irony is that we’ve never needed them more than at the present. With energy prices rising rapidly, smart meters, or at least the In Home Displays (which most people think are the smart meters) can be an enormous help to let consumers understand how much energy they are using. Unfortunately, most of them are likely to be at the back of a drawer or thrown away. We have no idea about how many of these In Home Displays are still in daily use. They were designed so that energy suppliers could ascertain how many of them are being used, but I don’t think that anyone at BEIS or the energy suppliers has ever bothered to do so. It’s something that they don’t need to know to work out your bill, so they don’t see any reason to spend money doing it, which is pretty much their general attitude to the value of data.
Using Smart Meters to change Consumer Behaviour
When the smart metering programme was being designed, there was talk about using them to support different tariffs for different times of the day. Whilst that’s been used in other countries, such as the US, where there can be extremes of demand for air-conditioning, it’s never been seriously considered in the UK. We have simple schemes like Economy 7, and British Gas has tried cheap weekend pricing, but it’s never been pushed beyond that. However, our smart meters were designed to cope with immensely complex tariffs, that could change every quarter of an hour. I explained this in an article – “Fifty Shades of Tariff”, back in 2012 when this was being incorporated into the metering specifications. At the time, most of the discussion around this was largely academic. Nobody really thought that we would ever see the current spike in energy prices and the knock on demand issues that would arise from them. All of a sudden, the chickens have come home to roost, only to discover that the henhouse still hasn’t been built.
Which brings us to the question of how the smart meters in half of British homes can help consumers in this crisis? The current response to from the Climate Minister, Graham Stuart is to ask consumers to move their demand, by doing things at different times. Not reducing their energy consumption, but moving it. This has come with suggestions that they might receive discounts for doing so. All of that is possible with our current smart meters, but the problem is that only half of the population have them. Nobody without one would be able to access the discount, which means that any such scheme is probably open to legal challenge, as it favours consumers who were chosen by the utilities as easy targets for smart meter installation.
Energy Information Campaigns
The other proposal which surfaced was that BEIS, the ministry concerned with our smart metering programme, had a plan to spend £15 million on an information campaign to inform consumers about the need to move their energy usage. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new minister in charge of BEIS, has always been keen on promoting the teaching of history, as he thinks we can learn a lot from it. In this case, it looks as if he’s not putting that principle into practice. When the smart metering programme commenced, the Government set up a marketing body called SmartEnergy GB to persuade customers to have a smart meter fitted. Many of their advertisements have been incorrect or disrespectful, and despite spending around £250 million on their campaigns (which is added to our energy bills), they have failed dismally in persuading users to install smart meters, evidenced by the fact that we’re not yet at the half-way point. So, history suggests that most householders don’t pay much attention to energy messages, hence BEIS shouldn’t waste still more money on this. It seems that his boss – Ms Truss, might have slightly more sense, as this campaign has allegedly been ditched, albeit on the grounds that it smacks of a nanny state, rather than because it’s a waste of money.
Where’s my Smart Meter?
The important question we need to ask is why we still haven’t hit the half-way mark? The answer is that our energy suppliers aren’t really particularly keen on installing them. What should have been an easy task has been turned into a very complicated one, vastly inflating the cost for limited benefit. The best approach would have been to let the grid install meters, so that they could upgrade them on a street by street basis, as has been done in the past. It’s the way every other country has done it. Instead, the task was given to the energy suppliers, who have subcontracted it out to meter installation companies. They’ve had difficulty recruiting and training enough meter fitters, which is why we’re still many years behind schedule. But even now, the process of getting a smart meter fitted can be horrendous.
We have a property in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile – the pedestrianised street that runs from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, and we wanted to get a smart meter fitted. We filled in Scottish Power’s online form and were given a date around three months away. On the morning of the fitting, we had a call from the fitter, saying he couldn’t find a space to park his van. That’s hardly surprising, as the centre of Edinburgh is a pedestrian zone. On being told that, he replied that he would have to cancel the fitting, as it should have been booked as a two-man job. One man to drive the van and drop him off, then come back and pick him up afterwards. When asked when that could be done, he told us to start again and book a new installation. Scottish Power’s website for booking a smart meter fitting gives no option for suggesting that there might be a parking issue, or that it requires two people to do it, so we’re anticipating going round the same cycle multiple times. Other residents in the building have had the same problem, although one did manage to get the fitter to arrive, only to tell her that smart meters for Economy 7 tariffs “haven’t been invented yet” (they have), after which he promptly cancelled the fitting and departed.
It would be interesting to know what the success rate of smart meter fitting is. At the start of the programme, the industry perception was that 70% should be straightforward, 20% might have difficulties requiring a second visit and 10% could be challenging, with a few percent of installations unable to connect and return data. Most utilities started off with a plan to cherry pick the easy ones for the first 50%, hoping to use those to learn how to cope with the more difficult ones. The struggle to get to the half-way mark suggests that the second half may be much more challenging than expected, especially if the simple mistakes we’ve experienced are widespread. I am aware that other providers ask far more sensible questions than Scottish Power, so they may be an outlier.
Incidentally, Scottish Power are owned by the Spanish energy provider Iberdrola, who managed to complete their smart metering rollout in Spain in just over four years. They’ve obviously not had much success in training their Scottish staff.
Are Smart Meters working?
What is so sad about the GB Smart Metering programme is that it should have been simple. Many other countries have successfully installed smart meters, which help consumers, energy suppliers and the grid. Rather than learning from these, the Government and energy suppliers decided they would redesign everything from scratch in the most complicated way possible, getting comprehensively mugged by every technology supplier along the way. It is another of many Government IT disasters, which has probably added around £20 billion to our energy bills for no perceivable benefit, and for which nobody appears to be accountable.
As we move to a more distributed and renewable grid, the current smart meters being installed won’t be adequate, so the potential is there for this to be a recurring nightmare. I hope that something can be salvaged from the current fiasco, and that the new minister at BEIS can persuade his staff to learn something from history before the same mistakes are repeated. If this had been done well, consumers would have some information at hand to help them make decisions about their energy bills. Instead, the majority of households are left in the dark (possibly quite literally in the coming months), while £20 billion has been unnecessarily added to the nation’s domestic energy bills.