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Monday, 9 March 2015

SMART METERS - DO THEY THINK WE'RE DUMB?

Over the next five years 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 2020. Which would be 20,000 meter fittings every working day. That target will not be met as the programme is already behind schedule.

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 will be available in future.

The meter also feeds some information about current use to what is called an 'In Home Display' or IHD. The Government now says 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.

Costs
The costs are certain, though the amount will rise. Between the 2012 and 2013 estimates they rose by £1.4 billion. The latest estimate is the Impact Assessment published in January 2014. Estimates show that manufacturing and installing 53 million meters, communication devices, and IHDs in 30 million premises will cost around £7bn. There is also the need for a new communications infrastructure network. That is due to be completed later in 2015. The 2013 Impact Assessment put the total costs of the programme over 20 years at £12.1 billion. We will all pay that through our energy bills which will cost more than £400 per household.

Savings
Estimates of savings are more speculative.

Customers will save money because they will use the information from the IHD to cut their energy consumption. That saving is put at £6.3bn over 20 years which is based on a 2.8% cut in electricity use and 2% in gas use. The estimated savings rose by almost 50% between the 2012 and 2013 estimates of the benefits.

Achieving those savings requires active engagement by customers. But many will not be engaged and will end up paying more. A recent report by DECC 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.

Energy suppliers will save an estimated £9.1 billion. More than a third of that will be from ending meter reading (£3.4bn) and having fewer customer complaints £1.3bn). Another big saving of £1.6bn comes from reducing the cost of customers switching supplier. And a further £2.6bn is savings made in managing debt and 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 £1.6bn to bring total savings to £18.8bn.

These figures are estimates made in 2013 in the Government's revised Impact Assessment.

Who gains?
Only a third of the savings will be made directly by consumers. And only for those who engage with the energy saving opportunities. About 60% 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 £12.1 billion cost of the smart meter programme through their bills, the savings of £6.3 billion will be felt only by those who adjust their behaviour and and some of the remaining £12.5 billion only if the industry passes on its own savings to customers in lower prices.

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.

Extra costs.
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 many years energy suppliers 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. Smart meters will end that system. So customers will pay a high price for the accuracy of their bills.

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. It 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 soaps or interval in football matches when millions put the kettle on make a cup of tea.

With time of use tariffs the customer is 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.

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 throw a switch and disconnect them.

Organisation
The delivery of this programme is in the hands of the six large and dozen smaller energy suppliers. They will each fit the meters for their own customers. Which could mean 18 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 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.

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 a cellular 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 will leave 225,000 premises unconnected. Apart from remote dwellings, tall buildings and multi-occupied premises proved problems that have not been solved.

Meanwhile Smart Energy GB will spend £25.4 million in 2015 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.

Select Committee
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.

15 January 2016 
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