Smart meters: Good for consumers but infrastructure unresolved

Energy and Climate Change Select Committee report highlights infrastructure risks and spiralling costs in UK smart meter roll-out

An Energy and Climate Change Select Committee report has highlighted infrastructure risks and spiralling costs in the UK smart meter roll-out.

The Committee’s Smart Meter report, published on 27 July, warned: “There is a clear risk that the £6.7bn net benefit projected by the DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] may not be achieved if costs spiral or if consumers do not realise the expected energy and bill savings.”

Robert Smith MP, on behalf of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, commented: "DECC and Ofgem must ensure that costs do not spiral. The roll-out of smart meters will be expensive – DECC estimates it will cost around £12.1bn – and smart meters are expected to achieve savings in the order of £18.8bn. If UK consumers and businesses are to see the £6.7bn benefit, DECC and Ofgem must retain responsibility for ensuring that costs are kept under control until there is sufficient competition in the market to do this.”

The government has put back the roll-out to give suppliers more time to create the communications network that will underpin it.

The report stated that communications issues need to be resolved before installing smart meters to ensure that consumers have a good experience and are able to access the benefits of smart meters as soon as they are installed.

Evidence presented in the report warned that if important technical and infrastructure requirements were not in place before deployment, costs could increase significantly. Some consumers could have a poor experience, which might have a reputational effect on the roll-out programme, warned the Energy and Climate Change Committee.

National Grid was among the companies that presented evidence for the report. It stated that the completion of the mass roll-out of smart meters by the end of 2019 could be difficult to achieve, while energy providers EDF and SSE (Southern Electric) warned that the cost of installing meters could increase as the deadline for completion approached.

Networking smart meters

Mobile, WAN and mesh networks have been suggested as possible mechanisms to creating a countrywide network to give 97.5% of the UK’s population the ability to use a smart meter.

However, Scottish Power, SSE, E.ON and First Utility suggested that a mix of technologies would need to be deployed to get close to 100% WAN coverage. Powerline, where data is sent over electricity transmission cables, and GPRS were suggested as backup networks.

Stuart Rolland, managing director, smart metering at British Gas, raised concerns about the length of time it would take to reach the target. He said the company would have up to 3,000 engineers ready for the smart meter roll-out, but the network would not be ready for the roll-out.

Siemens identified a key gap in the implementation relating to how residents in flats would be able to connect smart meters. It noted that the current market design leaves it to each energy supplier with customers in the building, to install their own separate home area network (HAN) equipment, which is required for the smart meter deployment. Siemens said this represented poor value for money for the consumer.

Software engineer Martyn Thomas, a member of the IET Information Technology Policy Panel, recommended that the smart meter project uses a mathematically formal specification to establish whether there were vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

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