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The deadline for every home in the country to be offered an upgraded smart gas and electricity meter through the government’s troubled Smart Meter Programme is to be put back by four years to the end of 2024, but the government has insisted its targets are still being met.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which owns the programme, maintained that the national roll-out of smart meters was central to the delivery of a smart and sustainable energy system as an element of the UK’s net zero carbon emissions target in the face of the climate emergency.
It also said it still hoped to realise billions of pounds of consumer benefits – as of its latest cost-benefit analysis – through reduced bills, improved processes and so on. BEIS has also launched a consultation on how to reform the policy regime covering the roll-out beyond 2020.
Climate change minister Ian Duncan said the industry was on track for suppliers to have offered every householder a smart meter by the end of 2020, and that the revised target was intended to “maintain momentum” beyond that by introducing annual targets for smart meter installation, beginning in 2021. He said this would “deliver even greater benefits for households and reduce emissions”.
“Our energy system is already cheaper, greener and more efficient for consumers because of smart meters,” he said. “Replacing traditional gas and electricity meters is a vital upgrade to our national energy infrastructure.”
Its post-2020 approach – if approved – will oblige energy suppliers to deliver a market-wide roll-out of smart meters. The new cost-benefit analysis said benefits would include a 45-million-tonne reduction in the UK’s carbon emissions, total bill savings amounting to £5.6bn and a net benefit of £250 to every family in Britain, and £1.5bn of savings for small businesses.
BEIS noted that without smart meters, the cost of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 could cost the UK £16bn more per annum.
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In spite of the government’s optimism about the future of the scheme, the delay has been taken as a sign that Westminster is now aware it faces an insurmountable obstacle in meeting its 2020 deadline. Citizens’ Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said the delay was simply common sense.
“It’s been clear for a long time that the 2020 deadline wouldn’t be met and today’s announcement finally recognises that reality,” said Guy.
“This new deadline gives suppliers time to fix ongoing technical problems and make sure customer service isn’t sidelined as the roll-out continues. We’ve seen some energy companies use aggressive techniques to try to persuade people to have smart meters fitted as soon as possible to meet the existing timeline.
“It’s also apparent that the cost of the roll-out is escalating, and the public are picking up the tab through their energy bills,” she said. “People will still benefit in the long run, but today’s cost-benefit analysis shows focusing on speed hasn’t worked.”
Earlier in 2019, it emerged that the Smart Meter Programme was in danger of foundering after BEIS published statistics saying the installation rate was slowing by over a fifth year-on-year, making it a virtual impossibility that the UK’s gas and electricity suppliers would meet the 2020 deadline.
This was the latest in a litany of delays and setbacks for the scheme. In 2018, the cross-bench British Infrastructure Group (BIG) of parliamentarians called for an inquest into what it termed “yet another large-scale public infrastructure project delivered well over time and budget”, and more recently, the National Audit Office (NAO) said any cost benefits to the scheme were being badly compromised.
Among some of the concerns over the programme voiced previously are higher-than-forecast installation costs; the incompatibility of older smart meters installed towards the beginning of the programme with newer technical specifications; and the many stories of equipment losing its “smart” functionality altogether and becoming effectively a normal, “dumb” meter when its householder switches suppliers.