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Smart meter roll out derailed

Depending on who you believe, smart meters are either an essential weapon in the fight against climate change or a sinister means of over-charging and disconnecting poorer households.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between.  Nevertheless, according to the UK government, “Smart meters are here — and they put you in control.”  This, however, is beginning to look like the least plausible claim of all about smart meters.

Back in March, Vincent de Rivaz CEO of EDF warned that all is not well with the British roll out of smart meters:

“Delays to the communications infrastructure – the DCC – now means millions more customers will get less digitally sophisticated meters than intended. Concretely, these meters make things more complex for the moment when a customer switches supplier – and they cost more than the next-generation meters. It is our responsibility to maintain public confidence in the programme and keep costs under control.

“That’s why I think now is time for all the parties – Government, suppliers, regulator, DCC, providers of technology – to sit together and take stock on where we are. We need to be honest with ourselves on all the issues: security, safety, quality, costs and timeline.”

It is not just that the IT infrastructure is behind schedule, it is also 50 percent more expensive than was originally proposed by the Data Communications Company – a subsidiary of Capita.  This is because of the need to build work-arounds into the system to account for technical problems with so-called “Smets1” devices which, in addition to various security concerns, have a nasty habit of “going dumb” when customers switch suppliers.  Newer so-called “Smets2” devices will be able to overcome these problems provided that the appropriate IT infrastructure is in place.  However, according to Nathalie Thomas in the Financial Times:

“Energy companies say they have little confidence this will be delivered quickly and question at what cost, given the infrastructure to support second-generation meters was meant to be delivered in the autumn of 2015. The technology was officially launched in November last year but suppliers say second-generation meters will only be rolled out in any great volume at the end of this year at the earliest.”

Delays are being compounded by consumers’ reluctance to sign up for smart meters.  According to Thomas:

“Persuading households to have a smart meter fitted is a growing problem, according to numerous suppliers, particularly in light of recent negative press reports about problems such as wildly inaccurate meter readings.”

In light of the problems with the early Smets1 devices and the current absence of appropriate IT infrastructure to resolve the problems, customer reluctance seems entirely justified.  In effect, smart meter early adopters have been duped into becoming test pilots for a system whose flaws are only now being revealed.  And while most technology early adopters are happy to take risks and pay over the odds, the majority of consumers are not – if the government made a false promise to roll-out smart meters by 2020, well that won’t be the first or last time a government got it wrong.  If energy and IT companies face fines (up to 10 percent of their global profits) for failing to deliver, well perhaps that will encourage them to be more cautious in the future.  But for consumers – and, indeed, for a future green energy system – having an infrastructure that actually works is far more important than bodging together one that does not just to meet a deadline.

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