By Paul Homewood
The smart meter programme stumbles from crisis to crisis:
Hundreds of thousands of people with smart meters have been unable to switch supplier without their meter “going dumb”.
The £11bn smart meter roll-out was meant to make things simpler for customers and reduce energy usage, but many of those who switched supplier in a bid to save money found that their meter was incompatible with the new firm’s network and stopped working fully.
Government papers now reveal the true scale of the problem, stating that “less than half” of those who switched retained all the features of their smart meter. Some of those that kept working did so only because the new supplier physically changed the meter.
Millions of energy customers switch every year in pursuit of cheaper deals. According to Electralink, the firm that monitors switching data for the energy industry, a million consumers with smart meters changed supplier in the past 12 months.
Switching supplier can save the average consumer £263 on their annual energy bill, according to Energyhelpline, a price comparison service. The firm’s Victoria Arrington said interoperability issues undermined the entire point of the smart meter roll-out.
She said: “Switching suppliers is a recommended method for keeping energy bills as low as possible. Any inability to combine the power of a smart meter with the freedom to switch and keep the meter ‘smart’ undermines the goal of the meters.”
A fix for this problem has been trialled for years – a centralised computer network operated by the Data Communications Company (DCC), part of the outsourcing firm Capita, and a new breed of smart meters. This will standardise systems across suppliers and make switching far simpler.
But the network’s launch has been repeatedly delayed and fewer than 300 switchable meters have so far been installed in customers’ homes. The major challenge now is making sure the millions of legacy meters are compatible with DCC’s network.
The document released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) laid out how this would be done, but acknowledged for the first time that some older meters might be replaced. Legacy meters will be added to the network in three waves via operating system upgrades. DCC said this would give users “full switching and smart capability”.
But some experts expressed scepticism about how successful the upgrades would be. Professor Benjamin Sovacool, an energy policy expert at the University of Sussex, said: “We have more than 50 suppliers in Britain and countless designs of meter. How can you have a one-size-fits-all upgrade that will fix all the problems?”
Others have raised security concerns surrounding the upgrades, which will start later this year. GCHQ, the security service, reportedly intervened in 2016 to fix a flaw with the security key used to access smart meters remotely.
In Germany the roll-out was halted, reportedly over security concerns. A spokesman for the BEIS said the network was secure and accessible only by “authorised parties”. She said the National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, had been involved from the outset.
Despite frequent assurances that no meters would need to be replaced to connect to DCC’s network, the Government has now opened the door to that possibility. The proposals include a “backstop” that would legally require companies to replace early meters that haven’t been connected by the end of 2020.
This could drastically increase the cost of the roll-out, which some experts say could already cost all customers hundreds of pounds on their energy bills.
There are 10.1 million smart meters in homes across Britain. In February, the energy minister, Claire Perry, told Parliament that large suppliers were operating 400,000 smart meters in dumb mode.
But the Electralink data and the government report suggest that more than half a million consumers could have lost smart functions after a switch in the past year alone. Their meter will still display their energy usage in “kilowatt hours” but won’t show usage in pounds and pence or send readings automatically.
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May 12, 2018 at 10:36AM