Britain’s smart meter programme needs a reality check

The UK government isn’t clear on the benefits of the national smart meter programme
Published: Thu 29 Sep 2016

The delivery of Britain’s smart metering programme has come in for a good deal of criticism over the years. [see e.g. More reasons to halt UK smart meters] The latest, in what a telling commentary, is from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s ‘Evidence check’, which finds what amounts to lack of clarity about the objectives, uncertainty about the impacts, inaction on the status of first generation smart meters and the need for deeper customer engagement.

However, the review wasn’t entirely negative and the Committee came away with confidence that the important security issue is “being taken seriously.”

The Evidence Check is one of nine being conducted on different programme areas, of which remarkably two (Science and technology challenges for an ageing population and artificial intelligence) couldn’t be tied to a lead government department. Others that will be of interest when they become available are on smart cities and given the link with EVs, driverless (smart) cars.

Smart meter evidence

According to the preamble of the report, the exercise has an explicit focus on the evidence behind government policy on smart metering, rather than on the specifics of the rollout that have been addressed in other investigations.

The key finding of the Committee is that while considerable work has been invested in developing an evidence base for the smart metering project, there is a lack of clarity about its primary purpose.

Overall, a set of 11 objectives are listed for the programme, offering a diverse range of benefits. In particular, it is unclear whether the primary aim is the establishment of a smart energy system or to save individuals money on their energy bills. The fact that in-home displays – or potentially some other form of feedback on energy usage – are being included raises the risk that reduction of consumption could be perceived to be the primary purpose of smart metering, given that this will be the most visible manifestation of the project for consumers.

The fact that savings for consumers are likely to be modest is well-documented by research and trials, and it would be unfortunate if the wider future benefits of a smart grid are forgotten amongst this, the Committee states. The national benefits of smart metering – in terms of optimising electricity generation and storage, and paving the way for a smart energy system – are also important.

Consumer engagement

Alongside the need for government to be clearer about the primary purpose of smart metering, the Committee highlights the need for consumer engagement at all stages of the programme – before, during and after installation, and calls on government to ensure “appropriate investment” in this activity. Specifically more should be done to communicate also the national benefits of smart metering.

The efforts of Smart Energy GB to make good use of behavioural science to consider how best to support the rollout are noted. It is suggested that this could usefully be bolstered by evidence from sociologists and social psychologists, “given that energy usage is an integral part of modern life.”

Some other points raised by the Committee include:

• Updating of research on the impact of smart meters as the rollout progresses. Government should take the opportunity now available to examine five years of data for some customers in the Early Learning Programme. It should explore with British Gas the opportunity to make its large datasets, from 2.7 million fitted smart meters, available to researchers.

• The need to resolve the interoperability of some early smart meters, which is undermining efforts to encourage consumers to switch suppliers

• The need for clarity on processes for anonymisation of smart meter data and the ethics of data usage and consent.

The full smart meter rollout is due to begin later this year and the government and suppliers are going to have their work cut out to reach the 2020 target (which although mandated from Europe, is still in place with the pending Brexit). Some 53 million smart electricity and gas meters are due for installation, of which in operation to date there are about 3.6 million, of which some number are expected to have to be replaced because of the interoperability issue mentioned above.

To explore current drivers, challenges and solutions in the smart metering space, join Engerati’s In-Focus series Smart Metering - End to End Rollouts

Further reading

House of Commons S&T Committee: Evidence Check: Smart metering of electricity and gas

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