The Rocky Road to Smart

 

This article originally appeared in The Environmentalist in December 2016.

We’re all going to have smart meters installed in our homes by 2020, and then life will be much better for all of us: meter readings will be a thing of the past, homes will be able to monitor and manage their energy use and supply accurately, and beneficial changes such as time of use tariffs for electricity can come in. All potentially very good, but there is, of course, a road to go down to get to that felicitous outcome, which rather obviously involves actually installing all those meters, and setting up a communication system that can deal with all the smart communication traffic that will make the meters work. And a report on the progress of all this, and the cost benefit associated with it just released by the new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department, suggests that this road is becoming an increasingly rocky one.

By the way, the report from the department was completed in August, but is only now [in November] being released after a three-month delay, which rather serves as a leitmotif for the problems of the programme that it highlights. At its heart is the continuing delay in ‘going live’ of the all-important Data Communications Company (DCC) without which up-to-date, interoperable smart meters cannot realistically be installed: and this body, outsourced in its organisation to Capita (of local authority management services fame) has repeated failed to ‘go live’ when it has said it will. Indeed it is now more than a year delayed, and has just staggered into life in only two of the three main areas of the UK (the northern area is still further delayed). When I say staggered into life, it seems that the going-live process itself is still plagued with all sorts of unresolved issues and may not yet be reliable enough to assure the safe rollout of latest design meters.

This is important because no leeway has yet been given by the Government on the completion date for installation. It is still 2020, but is now being compressed into a shorter and shorter timescale of implementation. The installation of more than 50 million smart meters was always going to be a high challenge, but projections from the new report now suggest that the programme will peak now at over 15 million installations in one year in 2019 (an increase of over 2 million on projections just a year ago). This starts to strain credibility, not only about whether such a compressed programme is now technically feasible, but then, if it is, the additional costs of employing all those extra installers and managing a crash programme over a short period, rather than a measured programme over a longer period. It would add still further burdens on an already strained budget: the report indeed already records additional costs to the £11 billion programme (not least to the troubled DCC) and because of wider problems, decreased net benefit to consumers.

I certainly support the aims of a smart meter programme, and I am convinced that properly integrated into smarter grid management they can be of immense benefit not just to consumers, but to the ability of the system to manage itself in a far more energy efficient way and incidentally, to manage much more effectively the low carbon power now coming onto the system. But as matters stand, it is increasingly looking like the smart meter rollout is in danger of becoming a smart meter roll into a ditch.

I have called for a pause in immediate programme implementation to allow for an independent appraisal of overall programme progress and problems to be undertaken. I think this is necessary to ensure that we actually get the rollout right, and do not, as I think we are in danger of doing, resort to ever more counterproductive fixes to keep the show on the road. And if the rollout is completed by, say, 2021 – instead of 2020 – then at least we will know that it really is going to produce the benefits we all want from it, and will not end up as a half formed sub-optimal fudge. Someone (and this means BEIS) needs to get hold of it now.

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