Something has happened to the smart metering rollout here in the United Kingdom and, whilst I don’t necessarily want to be the bearer of bad news, it seems things have gone a little skew-whiff.

Do you feel guilty?

With an aggressive eagerness to achieve their carbon budget, the British government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) created an ambitious project with a challenging timeframe for both manufacturers and utilities to develop, manufacture, deliver and install smart meters across homes and businesses by 2020. The government, along with the utility companies, felt that if consumers and businesses became more aware of their energy use they would, in turn, begin to reduce their consumption. 

And that’s it! This is as good as it gets with smart meters – you get to witness your digital counter on your in-home display (IHD) attempting to instill a sense of guilt, as the digits slowly increment when you consume electricity or gas! Oh, and you no longer have to take meter readings – whoop-de-doo! 

Unknown technical challenges

The cost of the government’s initiative is purported to have risen to almost £14 billion and, likewise, it’s predicted that the long-term saving has also risen to £19 billion or so. The rising cost is somewhat inevitable, but the expected long-term saving seems utterly speculative and I wonder how our government can make such a prediction when consumers are, by nature, wholly unpredictable. Who is making the saving here? After all, we ultimately know the consumer will pick up the cost of this ambitious project at some point!

Anyway, the target date has now been pushed out to 2024 and, I dare say, that this is still unrealistic! You see, there’s an unmeasurable level of complexity and associated technical challenges that must be addressed, let alone the logistical nightmare of rolling out meters across the UK. For example, when an engineer enters a home or business for the first time, they will, for all intents and purposes, be faced with an unknown entity and the challenges faced by the “smart meter” working effectively in such an environment can often be hit or miss. 

I’m still not convinced

More so, a smart meter relies on wireless connectivity to share data to the supplier and with the home and business user, which can often be temperamental; I’m sure we have all experienced our wireless connection’s “mood swings,” especially if it’s raining, the wind is blowing too hard or it’s too ruddy warm! 

And, my final point: Do we have enough skilled engineers with the technical acumen to set up and configure the device? Let’s not forget that engineers will have to accommodate around 30 million homes and, of course, they must have the right skillset to install, configure and set up a smart meter, as well as troubleshoot onsite! Sadly, I’m not convinced!

A conspiracy theory

Metering manufacturers have been given the arduous task to develop their smart meters in accordance with the DECC’s numerous and arguably complicated set of specifications, which, as such, I will not discuss here. So, at the point of manufacture, a smart meter, that is, the second generation, Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specification v2, abbreviated as SMETS2, remains “tabula rasa.” A smart meter takes on a personality, if you like, only once it has been assigned to a utility. A utility will have its own expectations in terms of the user interface, how it should look and whether to display their logo. The utility’s own, and often complicated, set of tariffs are also uploaded to the meter. Naturally, there are consumers who pay monthly or quarterly via direct debit, for example, and there are those who can only afford to “pay-as-you-go” – this effectively is captured in the array of tariffs programmed into the smart meter and will be unique to the supplier.

I might be somewhat paranoid here but, I dare say, the utilities and the government might be in cahoots, since there’s a feature that attempts to modify consumers’ behavior towards their energy consumption. After all, how will the government meet their carbon budget if we continue to use our energy as normal? What’s more, utilities are burdened with unpredictability in supply and strive to stabilize their energy flow, since purchasing new energy ad hoc from third parties to meet unexpected demand isn’t cost effective for both suppliers and consumers. 

Changing your behavior towards energy use

As such, your so-called smart meter has a lesser known feature called time-of-use (TOU) and this is something consumers must become aware of, since it will affect how you consume and use your energy-hungry appliances during the day and night and will directly affect what you pay. It’s a feature that should ultimately benefit both the consumers and utilities. The concept of TOU, isn’t strictly new as legacy TOU (LTOU) tariffs, such as Economy7 already help consumers and businesses to reduce their costs.

I wanted to understand more about the SMETS2 rollout and, specifically, I wanted to understand TOU better, so I reached out to Bulb who supplies 100% renewable energy to their customers and I spoke with Scott Chambers, a smart energy specialist. Chambers mentioned that Bulb are currently trialing their TOU tariff, which is still in beta and hasn’t been made available to customers who currently have SMETS2 meters; however, some of their selected customers who are using SMETS1 and SMETS2 meters are, if you like, testing the TOU tariffs prior to Bulb rolling it out nationally to all their customers. 

Accepting change

TOU will be enforceable throughout the day and night and, with utilities wishing to avoid spikes in demand during peak periods, costlier or even variable tariffs might be applicable during such periods. For example, Bulb have introduced their “smart tariff,” which is a three-rate tariff, that is, overnight, off-peak and peak – tariff rates vary across the UK depending on where you are geographically located. Naturally, introducing such tariffs provides the consumer with an opportunity to rethink their energy use, especially during the peak period where energy can be “both expensive and carbon-intensive,” said Chambers. Bulb advertise their peak period between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., although times may vary with other suppliers. So, the cost during these periods is just one example of how you may need to change your behavior towards energy use.

I’m currently on the Economy7 tariff, that is, a two-rate tariff for day and night use, which suits my needs quite well and, for now, there is no real incentive for me to switch to a three-rate tariff that charges more for electricity between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. I personally, see this as only beneficial to the supplier, but I’m also aware that Economy7 will eventually be phased out so, ultimately, I will be obligated at some point to take on such a new scheme. 

Until next time …

What’s more, in the UK it’s a typical time slot where children come home from school and the spouse comes home after work. It’s a time of day where the family will come together, switch on the TV, turn on their Xboxes and have their evening meal. So, the oven is on slowly cooking the roast chicken; the potatoes and other vegetables (which the kids will never eat) are on the gas hob and, whilst I understand this is a peak period, how do you encourage a sense of change in a family unit that regularly get together at a certain period of the day?

The smart metering initiative is an attempt by the British government to achieve their carbon budget whilst emphasizing our collective responsibility. With protests in London over climate change, along with the rest of the world, there is the “bigger picture” perspective in saving our planet. We can no longer forego our responsibility and we must all play a part in making this change. After all, a change now is “better late than never” and no-one likes a frowning Greta. 

So, this is where a green-minded if somewhat paranoid Dr. G, signs off.