How the smart meter roll out became such an expensive failure its own minister has thrown his out

By Paul Homewood

h/t Philip Bratby

It has taken them a few years, but finally the MSM is catching up with the disastrous smart meter roll out:



Are you fed up with your smart energy meter? Mike O’Brien is. He used to use one of the devices, 53 million of which are due to be rolled out across the country by the end of 2020. “I had an early version,” Mr O’Brien told The Telegraph this week. “After a while I barely looked at it, didn’t use it.”

The difference between you and Mike O’Brien, however, is that in 2008 Mike O’Brien was Minister of State for Energy at the newly-created, Ed Miliband-led Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which launched Britain’s smart meter revolution – the biggest and most expensive in the world.

It is an IT project which will not meet either its 2020 deadline or its £11bn budget. That seems certain. What seems much less sure, however, is whether the whopping £16.73bn savings the plan’s backers claim for it will ever materialise.

After all, according to the Government’s own analysis, a full third of those savings are due to come from reduced energy usage, driven in no small part by consumers staring at the screens of their smart meters then frantically turning off electrical appliances at home.

That’s what Ed Miliband told a select committee in 2009. “As a user of a real-time display,” he said, “I know that it makes a difference and it makes you careful when you boil the kettle and all that sort of thing.” Yet his Minister of State for Energy had a different view. “We got rid of it,” he recalls of his own smart meter.

Mike O'Brien was MP for North Warwickshire and Energy Minister

Mike O’Brien was MP for North Warwickshire and Energy Minister Credit: Getty Images Fee

Still, just because the Minister of State for Energy “got rid” of his smart meter, that’s no reason to imagine you will not be getting one. Indeed many people, including readers of this newspaper, have complained of heavy-handed tactics from energy suppliers to force them to accept installation, despite the fact that there is no obligation.

It’s true that the suppliers are in a hurry, having fallen profoundly behind schedule. So far, about 13 million smart meters have been installed, at the rate of a little over 10,000 a day. To hit government targets, 40 million more must be installed before the end of 2020 – a rate of more than 40,000 a day.

That would be hard enough, even if suppliers had the right meters to install. Unfortunately, the ones they have been putting in so far (known as Smets1 meters) are far from smart. For a start, they rely on mobile networks to communicate data, so if you live in a mobile network blackspot, they don’t really function.

We got rid of itMike O’Brien, former Minister of State for Energy, on his smart meter

Most significantly, however, they stop working properly if you change energy supplier – an issue known as “going dumb”. To consumers who have had them installed, this can act as a disincentive to change supplier. Yet one of the principal motivations for the whole project was to create a seamless, user-friendly system which would put consumers in charge and allow them to switch suppliers easily, so getting the best energy prices.

“The big stuff was around energy efficiency and [customer’s] ability to switch,” says Philip Hunt, Baron Hunt of Kings Heath, who was Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change at DECC with Ed Miliband. “For me that was the core thing. So going dumb – that is obviously not great. Not great at all.” 

The “going dumb” phenomenon is hardly a surprise. According to one senior source who worked inside Miliband’s DECC, “there was already a suspicion that the tech was on the road to being out of date” even as it was being approved a decade ago. Due to delays and overruns, however, the very meters which looked old even in 2008 are still being installed today and can continue to be offered by suppliers until October.

Whether second generation “Smets2” meters, which are supposed to iron out problems, will be ready by that time is open to question. According to the initial timetable, they were supposed to have been ready by 2014. But the kit is so beset by technical niggles that, by January 2018, only 80 had been installed in what DECC’s successor, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), called “a live environment”. Only another 39,990,920 to go.

So how did a nationwide IT project costing billions turn into what Martin Lewis, founder of, calls a “cock up and a catastrophe”? For the answer to that, it is necessary to turn to Article 13 of Directive 2006/32/EC of the European Parliament, dating to 2006.

That political climate led to the creation by Gordon Brown of a new department, DECC, at the head of which he placed one of his most trusted lieutenants, Ed Miliband.

DECC’s establishment only contributed to the sense that energy had become an issue of universally-recognised importance. For example, when the Climate Change Act – to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – was introduced in 2008, just five MPs voted against. That consensus only intensified as the, ultimately doomed, Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change approached in 2009.

“Everything was leading up to Copenhagen,” says one official who was at DECC at the time. “There was a lot of interest in climate change targets. DECC’s job was set up to work out how these targets were going to be met. And smart meters were one of the building blocks to meet them.

“Britain was trying to take a leadership role on climate change,” the official continues. “There was a sense we should be an international role model. There was such enthusiasm for that from all sides.”

“It was,” Lord Hunt remembers, “a very exciting time.”

Exciting, but not without problems. In fact, from the moment the decision was taken to gold-plate the EU’s 2006 directive, the roll out of smart meters was struck by a series of disasters. These included failing to spot a security loophole so serious that GCHQ feared a hacker could “start blowing things up”, according to a Whitehall official.

Dr Ian Levy, the technical director of GCHQ’s communications electronic security group, even gave an interview to a cybersecurity journal in which he said of the security breaches: “The issue is will they let someone disconnect all the power to your house? Or can someone turn off the right number of meters in the right way to cause a collapse in the grid’s systems?”

There, in a paragraph of utterly bland text, lies the seed of Britain’s smart meter madness. Note, the directive did not insist on smart meters. It was not a three-line whip. In fact it offered plenty of get-out clauses – that meters only needed to be installed if it was “technically possible, financially reasonable and proportionate”.

But despite this, the directive was seized upon in Britain, where politicians on both sides of the House were vying to outdo each other in demonstrating their green credentials.

“Far from opposing us, the Tories were saying we weren’t being green enough,” recalls Mike O’Brien. “These were the days of David Cameron chasing huskies.”


 There is a lot more here. But this comment sums things up nicely:


“None of the people initially involved in the project [under Labour] knew anything about technology,” says Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge. “None of them was an engineer. They all had degrees in Latin or something. Then, when Cameron was made aware he wasn’t having any of it.  He said ‘It’s in the Coalition Agreement’ – and anyway the chickens weren’t coming home to roost until 2020.”


July 28, 2018 at 04:12AM

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