UK’s smart me­ter rev­o­lu­tion at risk of be­ing short-cir­cuited

The en­ergy in­dus­try is strug­gling to meet in­stal­la­tion tar­gets af­ter sev­eral glitches, writes Adam Vaughan

The Observer - - Business -

One of Bri­tain’s big­gest na­tional in­fra­struc­ture projects in decades is com­ing off the rails, ac­cord­ing to a wel­ter of crit­i­cism from politi­cians, con­sumer groups and me­dia out­lets.

The tar­get of the carp­ing is not the HS2 rail­way project or Heathrow run­way ex­pan­sion, but the gov­ern­ment’s re­quire­ment for en­ergy sup­pli­ers to of­fer all homes and busi­nesses a smart me­ter by the end of 2020.

The me­ters au­to­mate readings, en­cour­age sav­ing by show­ing con­sump­tion in pounds and pence, and should put an end to billing prob­lems.

In­dus­try and gov­ern­ment both ar­gue that they are vi­tal for help­ing the UK’s elec­tric­ity grid cope with an in­creas­ing but vari­able amount of wind and so­lar power.

They could also re­duce the need for costly up­grades to power grids, aid in­te­gra­tion of elec­tric cars into the en­ergy sys­tem and open up a host of in­no­va­tive tar­iffs where en­ergy costs vary based on time of use.

In short, they are seen as a es­sen­tial foun­da­tion for much of the UK’s en­ergy fu­ture.

But this sum­mer saw calls for their roll­out to be halted be­cause of prob­lems oc­cur­ring af­ter cus­tomers switch. A down­beat re­port by the Bri­tish In­fra­struc­ture Group – a parliamentary body run by the for­mer Tory party chair­man Grant Shapps – topped the news bul­letins.

Sep­a­rately, sta­tis­tics re­leased in Au­gust showed that the roll­out has lost mo­men­tum at ex­actly the time it should be speed­ing up. About 1.25 mil­lion smart me­ters were fit­ted in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2018, up just 1% on the pre­vi­ous quar­ter.

In­stal­la­tions have only just passed the 13 mil­lion mark – a long way from the 53 mil­lion there would be if ev­ery house­hold and busi­ness had one.

Em­bar­rass­ingly, about 940,000 have lost their smart func­tion­al­ity af­ter peo­ple switched sup­plier – mean­ing con­sumers once again have to man­u­ally sub­mit readings.

The fig­ures prompted the con­sumer group Cit­i­zens Ad­vice, which re­cently called for the 2020 dead­line to be de­layed to 2023, to de­clare that en­ergy sup­pli­ers would have to work at an “in­creas­ingly un­re­al­is­tic pace” to com­plete the roll­out.

How­ever, ad­vo­cates ar­gue that, far from com­ing off the rails, the project is ac­tu­ally, fi­nally, com­ing of age.

This was meant to be the year that most of the pro­gramme’s prob­lems were fixed by en­ergy sup­pli­ers switch­ing from fit­ting first-gen­er­a­tion me­ters, known as Smets1, to sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Smets2 units.

Tech­ni­cal prob­lems with the newer ones have meant the gov­ern­ment has had to re­peat­edly push back the cut­off date for in­stalling Smets1 me­ters. How­ever, those prob­lems ap­pear to have fi­nally been solved.

The Ob­server can re­veal there are now more than 30,000 Smets2 me­ters in­stalled in homes and busi­nesses across the coun­try – a rapid ac­cel­er­a­tion from a to­tal of just 1,000 in June. About 1,000 are now be­ing fit­ted each day.

Bri­tish Gas, the UK’s big­gest en­ergy sup­plier, has fit­ted more than 5,000. Smaller sup­pli­ers, which have been wait­ing for Smets2 units, say they are start­ing to in­stall them at pace.

Robert Cheesewright, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Smart En­ergy GB, the body set up to pro­mote smart me­ters, said the ar­rival of Smets2 me­ters in homes was “an im­por­tant mile­stone”.

The pro­gramme should get a fur­ther boost from Novem­ber, when the first-gen­er­a­tion me­ters’ prob­lem of los­ing smart func­tion­al­ity af­ter switch­ing sup­pli­ers starts to be fixed. That will in­volve an over-theair patch to “en­rol” them into a cen­tral body han­dling the me­ter data, which is run by the out­sourc­ing firm Capita.

Still, there is lit­tle doubt among in­dus­try watch­ers that the roll­out re­mains be­hind sched­ule.

Alan White­head, the shadow en­ergy min­is­ter, said: “The car hasn’t ac­tu­ally crashed yet, but all the signs of a big ac­ci­dent are around us.”

White­head said he be­lieved that the 2020 tar­get would be missed but did not want to see the tech­nol­ogy ditched. “We re­ally shouldn’t con­tem­plate a fu­ture where we sim­ply aban­don smart me­ters and con­tinue with old ana­logue me­ters.”

James Heappey, Con­ser­va­tive MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary Clean En­ergy Group, said in­stal­la­tion of the older me­ters should con­tinue in the short term, de­spite their prob­lems, to stop the roll­out from fal­ter­ing.

“I cer­tainly wouldn’t ar­gue in favour of a hia­tus, be­cause then the mo­men­tum is lost,” he said.

A spokesper­son at the De­part­ment for Busi­ness, En­ergy and In­dus­trial Strat­egy said: “More than 400,000 smart me­ters are be­ing in­stalled ev­ery month, help­ing peo­ple to take con­trol of their en­ergy use and save money on their bills.

“Ev­ery­one who wants a smart me­ter will get one by the end of 2020.”

Smart me­ters au­to­mate readings and en­cour­age en­ergy sav­ing by de­tail­ing con­sump­tion.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.