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Smart meter roll-out offering all the signs of a 'car crash', MPs agree

Image: Getty.

Image: Getty.

The smart meter roll out has all the signs of a car crash according to MPs from the UK’s two leading political parties, with doubts growing that the 2020 deadline will be kept to by the government.

Speaking in Westminster yesterday about the future of the energy system out to 2030, shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead claimed that the slow progress made so far in offering a smart meter to every home and business by 2020 had all the signs of an accident waiting to happen.

“The car hasn't actually crashed yet but all the signs of the accident are around us,” he said.

“We're facing frankly almost impossible looking peaks of installations in 2019, with vans that don't actually have meters in them because those meters have not been made. So I think we're in a really bad position.”

According to the latest government statistics on its roll-out, covering up to the end of March 2018, just 10 million domestic smart meters have been installed, with 1 million non-domestic installations in place. Around 52 million are expected to be offered across homes and businesses by the end of the decade.

Smart Meters Quarterly Report to end March 2018 Great Britain
Table taken from 'Smart Meters Quarterly Report to end March 2018 Great Britain', Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Speaking alongside the Labour MP was Conservative James Heappey, who said: “Alan's words 'car crash' - I don't disagree.”

Debate continued as to how the technology issues dogging the roll-out should be addressed, with consumers plagued by the interoperability issues of first generation (SMETS1) smart meters. Energy suppliers installing SMETS1 meters use their own data and communications systems to provide smart services which are then lost if the consumers switch to other suppliers.

The government is currently consulting on proposals to require energy suppliers to enrol SMETS1 meters in the Data Communications Company (DCC), the national data and communications provider set up to eventually operate the country’s smart meters.

Failing that suppliers could be obligated to replace these with SMETS2 meters, within a specified timeframe, with a back-stop obligation being considered that would require energy suppliers to replace any SMETS1 meter that is not enrolled with a SMETS2 meter by the end of 2020.

However, Whitehead suggested that government inaction on the issue would likely see it extend the point at which SMETS1 meters should no longer be installed, leaving only a small number of second generation, interoperable meters installed by 2020 and the whole programme “in complete disarray”.

Similar words were used in a House of Lords debate on the issue back in May with Lord Grantchester arguing that the rollout programme is “to a large extent in disarray” with “enormous confusion and uncertainty” surrounding it in the marketplace.

Whitehead continued: “We need to decide if we are going to roll out the programme on SMETS1 meters, try to make them interoperable and then run SMETS2 meters in over a much longer time scale afterwards as those meters are replaced, or have a pause until we have SMETS2 up and running.

“Either way it looks to me unlikely that we're going to meet the 2020 target as a result and that is a potentially serious problem in terms of some of the basic architecture we're going to need for all the things we've talked about this morning."

“I don't think we should pause or force everyone over to SMETS2 when SMETS2 aren't working because I think we've worked quite hard over the last few years to persuade Daily Mail readers in particular that Putin's not going to hack their toaster."

James Heappey MP

Despite agreeing with Whitehead on the pace of the roll-out Heappey disagreed on how best to respond, claiming that to force imperfect technologies on sceptical consumers could cause more damage than good.

“I don't think we should pause or force everyone over to SMETS2 when SMETS2 aren't working because I think we've worked quite hard over the last few years to persuade Daily Mail readers in particular that Putin's not going to hack their toaster. What we don't want is another consumer confidence issue to arise because SMETS2 meters are being forced on the market at pace.

“They don't work because the DCC isn't up and running properly and the technology itself is still immature. I certainly wouldn't argue in favour of a hiatus because then the momentum is lost,” he said.

Adding that he thought work was underway to ‘patch’ SMETS1 meters to solve the interoperability issues, he called for the government to “maintain pace” of SMETS1 and bring forward SMETS2 when they are able to “survive contact with a sceptical consumer”.

However, both agreed on the importance of getting the smart meter roll-out right, with Whitehead describing them as “an essential element… for bringing energy management down to a really granular level.”

“We can't allow the smart meter roll-out to stall, it's got to accelerate,” Heappey added.

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