Over the next two years or so every home and small business in the UK should have their electricity and gas meters replaced with new 'smart' meters. The plan is to put 53 million meters into 30 million homes and small businesses in England, Scotland, and Wales by the end of 2020. It is a challenging target. By the first half of 2018 just 12 million smart meters had been installed in homes, split about 57:43 between electricity and gas. The number of installations has plateaued at around 1.3m a quarter so it is a near impossible task to replace the remaining 41 million by the end of 2020. That would require one and a quarter million meters a month between now and then - three times the present rate.
The meters already fitted - and being fitted in 2018 - are an early model called SMETS1. Under plans confirmed in October upgraded meters called SMETS2 will not become the standard to be fitted until 5 December 2018 - a deadline that has been put off four times. A later deadline of 15 March 2019 will apply to prepayment meters. At the end of June 2018 there were 2000 SMETS2 meters installed but it was not clear how many were still under test conditions. However, the most recent letter to industry bosses says that "47,000 SMETS2 meters [have] been installed as at the end of September 2018".
SMETS1 meters use the existing mobile phone network for communications and each supplier has its own way of using it and transmitting data. People who have them will usually find that if they switch supplier their meter becomes dumb and has to be read manually. That is more difficult to do with 'smart' meters than it was with old meters designed for reading by a supple human with a torch.
There are plans to upgrade SMETS1 meters to operate with any supplier. They will still not be SMETS2 meters but the workaround will at least mean they can support switching supplier. This process is known as enrolment into the DCC network (described below) and is planned for 2019. However, the Government's latest assessment indicates that enrolment is currently only possible for two thirds of SMETS1 meters. The Government tells me "negotiations for the final third are making good progress." However, its latest papers indicate that some SMETS1 meters may have to be replaced by SMETS2 meters to ensure they are fully operational by the end of 2020. See enrolment of SMETS1 meter cohorts and maximising interoperability published in October 2018. Earlier papers are here Maximising Interoperability and Enrolment of SMETS1 cohorts.
Customers are free to choose whether or not to have a smart meter fitted. But the large companies are more and more trying to make it seem inevitable. Some are even booking appointments without agreement others are cold-calling and sending texts to customers. This hyperactivity is because if they miss the 31 December 2020 target they could be fined. EDF was fined £350,000 for missing its 'milestone target' for fitting meters. These milestone targets are secret and Ofgem refuses to reveal them despite an FOI request.
EDF is reported to have put a condition in its T&Cs to force customers who take on particular tariffs to have a smart meter. Though whether these are enforceable is doubtful. Other firms are offering cheaper prices to customers who have a smart meter. That will undoubtedly become more common as the roll out proceeds.
What 'smart' meters do
I put 'smart' in inverted commas because these meters are not in fact very clever. They simply report back to the supplier how much electricity and gas the customer uses each day and, with the customer's permission, every half hour. More frequent reporting may be available in future.
The meter also feeds some information about current use to what is called an 'In Home Display' or IHD. There will be one IHD which will cover both electricity and gas if you have it. It will normally be mains-powered and fixed in position but there will be an option for a separate portable battery powered unit. The IHD can show how much fuel is currently being used and can display the cost in £.p. Some of them will have a traffic light system - glowing green when consumption is low through amber to red when it is high. They can also do calculations of past and future use. Some reports suggest that if the IHD is switched off for any reason it is difficult or impossible to get it back online and recording usage accurately.
The costs of the smart meter programme are certain, though it is inevitable now that they will increase above their current estimates. The latest cost/benefit analysis was published in August 2016. It estimates that manufacturing and installing 53 million meters, communication devices, and IHDs in 30 million premises will cost £5.44bn. There is also a new communications infrastructure network called DCC which will cost £3.13bn. That was due to be completed late in 2015 but was in fact not switched on until November 2016 and in 2018 is still being tested. Some older smart meters may never be able to use it. The cost/benefit analysis puts the total costs of the programme over 18 years at £11bn. That figure is in 2011 pounds; even without cost overruns to deal with delays and incompatibility issues, that would be about £13 billion in today's pounds. That cost is about £400 per household and is paid through higher electricity and gas bills.
Those payments are beginning. In 2017 all major suppliers and some smaller ones have put up the cost of electricity by 10% to 15% and each of them blames that rise in part on smart meters. That process continued in 2018.
Estimates of the savings are more speculative.
Customers will save money because they will use the information from the IHD to cut their energy consumption. That is the theory and the saving from that is put at £5.3bn over 18 years based on a 2.8% cut in electricity use and 2% in gas use.
Achieving those savings requires active engagement by customers. But many will not be engaged and will end up paying more. A report by the old Department for Energy and Climate Change on some pilot smart meter installations found that initially 96% used their IHD but about four out of ten disconnected them during the research. None were able to identify any clear savings due to the IHD. The Public Accounts Committee estimated in 2014 that customers would save on average about £26 a year. A survey by a price comparison site in July 2018 (on a small and perhaps not representative sample) found that less than half (49%) of its sample of 678 people with a smart meter had reduced energy usage. And as standing charges grow - they currently account for 13.5% of the typical bill - the scope for reducing bills by cutting energy use decreases.
Customers will also gain, if they choose to, by faster switching from one supplier to another. The process can take weeks now but a 24 hour service is promised. They will also benefit from suppliers sending an accurate monthly bill of energy used rather than sending out estimated bills.
Energy suppliers will save an estimated £8.25 billion. The biggest chunk - £3bn - will be from ending meter reading and other home visits. Reduced customer enquiries and complaints will save £1.2bn. Another £1bn will be saved by managing pre-payment customers better and there is a big saving of £1.4bn from reducing the cost of customers switching supplier. A further £1.2bn is saved by managing debt better and reducing theft.
Networks and the generators will save £1.8bn between them from smoothing the peaks and troughs of demand and generating less power.
Finally, carbon related benefits and air quality improvements will add £1.4bn to bring total savings to £16.7bn.
These figures are from the 2016 cost/benefit analysis and the technical annex and are in 2011 pounds. Actual costs in today's pounds will be 20% higher.
The Government has said its next cost benefit analysis will be published in 2019. However, the National Audit Office is expected to publish its own assessment before the end of 2018.
Less than a third of the savings will be made directly by consumers, and only by those who engage with the energy saving opportunities. Nearly 70% of the savings will go to the industry. The hope is, of course, that suppliers, generators, and transmitters of electricity and gas will pass some of those savings on. They may. But some of their savings - on debt management and prepayment meters for example - will come at a direct cost to the customers affected though they may be passed on to others. The savings from carbon reduction and air quality improvements will not be felt directly in the pocket by consumers.
So while the customers will pay for the £11 billion cost of the smart meter programme through their bills, the savings of £5.4 billion will be felt only by those who adjust their behaviour and and only some of the remaining £11.3 billion will be felt even if the industry passes on its own savings to customers in lower prices. It is not at all clear that the rather speculative carbon related and air quality savings will ever reach consumers' pockets.
The energy industry has a very poor record in passing on savings. In 2014 they took many months to pass any of the gains from the fall in the wholesale price of gas and none reduced electricity prices even though much of that is generated by burning gas.
The impact assessment does not take account of one significant extra cost.
Bills will no longer be estimated as they will be based on actual usage over a month. That is promoted by the Government as good news for consumers. But it will be expensive for gas and electricity suppliers. For many years they have encouraged customers to agree to pay estimated bills monthly by direct debit rather than quarterly based on meter readings. The result is that the firms have kept hundreds of millions of pounds on their books belonging to customers. The value of that is shown by the fact that customers who pay a more accurate quarterly bill can be charged 7% extra or more more than monthly direct debit customers. If they no longer make that saving then prices will inevitably rise. Some customers may prefer to keep estimated bills. They are at least constant and that can help with budgeting.
This money the suppliers routinely hang onto is separate from the £400m that Ofgem found they had wrongly kept when customers switched to another supplier. In February 2014 it ordered firms to refund this money. That event does not bode well for hopes that the industry would voluntarily return to customers the savings it makes from smart meters.
Time of use
The report also makes no assessment of the costs or savings to be made from what are called Time of Use tariffs. Once the smart meter network is rolled out suppliers will start making customers manage the load, especially in electricity supply. In other words when demand is high the price goes up. When demand is low the price comes down. And with half hour reporting - and it may be more frequent in future - time of use tariffs could be very specific.
For example, energy could be more expensive between 7am and 9 am when most people are getting up, putting on the kettle, and making breakfast. Or between 5pm and 8pm when evening meals are being cooked. The result would be that poorer families could not afford to eat dinner at dinner time.
Ultimately the cost of power could rise during the adverts in TV soaps or the interval in football matches when millions put the kettle on make a cup of tea.
Time of use tariffs mean that the customer is being drafted in to manage the national power load. By pricing people out of energy use at peak times the peaks and troughs of usage - so irksome to the engineers managing the grid - are smoothed out.
Time of use tariffs are particularly being touted for charging electric vehicles overnight for those drivers who have a drive or garage at home where they can charge them up.
Debt and disconnection
Smart meters will also enable energy suppliers to manage debt and disconnection remotely. Customers can be switched from credit payment to prepayment by the supplier without changing the meter. It also means that if someone has not paid their bill then the supplier will be able to disconnect them remotely. There are currently safeguards about who can be disconnected and when. But once the conditions are met the process of doing so will be much simpler.
The delivery of this programme is in the hands of the six large and dozens of smaller energy suppliers. They will each fit the meters for their own customers. Which could mean dozens of different engineers visiting the same street or block of flats to do the same job in neighbouring homes.
The central Data & Communication Company (DCC) is run by Capita. It will be responsible for collecting the data sent back by smart meters and forwarding it to the right energy supplier, the networks and energy services companies. Others may also get access to it. In 2014 the Information Commissioner expressed concerns about the security and use of this data. There is currently no provision to let customers know specifically who has access to it.
The data network will be run by two companies - Arqiva will cover northern England and Scotland using a long-range radio network and Telefonica UK will cover the rest of England and Wales using standard cellular telephone technology with what it calls 'mesh technology' to fill the gaps in the cellular network. The target is to cover 99.25% of dwellings - which if achieved will leave 225,000 premises unconnected. However, remote dwellings, tall buildings, and multi-occupied premises are problems that have not been solved. Some in the industry have said that 30% of homes cannot be integrated into the DCC grid. The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy has not denied that figure.
Meanwhile Smart Energy GB will spend £40m in 2018 to persuade us all that the smart meter programme is a good thing. What it calls building consumer awareness and understanding of smart meters and encouraging consumer engagement. It includes advertising, much of it using the Gas and Leccy characters but also a Smarter Britain bus tour with daytime TV housing gurus Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer - who admitted he didn't have a smart meter before he was paid to promote them. His current smart meter status is unknown.
On 15 October 2018 a revised House of Commons Library briefing set out the difficult task of meeting the 31 December 2020 deadline and has a lot of useful background information.
In July 2018 the British Infrastructure Group of MPs and Peers published their report Not So Smart which said that the saving per household would probably be only £11 a year and that the 2020 deadline was not achievable - it recommended a two year extension. It also raised concerns about whether the savings by the energy suppliers and the networks would be passed on to consumers. It was concerned that customers would not know what was happening to their data.
On 7 March 2015 the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee expressed concerns about delays and unresolved challenges in the smart meter programme. "Without significant and immediate changes to the present policy, the programme runs the risk of falling far short of expectations. At worst it could prove to be a costly failure."
In December 2014 the Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said that the state's smart meter programme had cost twice its estimate and made few if any savings for customers or suppliers and failed to reduce energy consumption.
21 October 2018