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Government smart meter project should be "halted, altered or scrapped"

The Institute of Directors has weighed in on the controversial smart meter rollout and called for the scheme to be halted, altered or scrapped in its current form

The government’s smart meter rollout is fundamentally flawed and must be either “halted, altered or scrapped” immediately to avert an expensive IT failure, according to the Institute of Directors (IoD).

The IoD delivered its verdict on the controversial £11bn scheme to replace gas and electricity meters with connected smart devices by 2020 just weeks after a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) report warned of the potential for a costly embarrassment.

Communications failures between various stakeholders, technological compatibility, and lack of public awareness were all cited as potential points of failure by DECC.

The IoD has now published a report titled ‘Not too clever: will smart meters be the next government IT disaster?’ in which it set out concerns that the project was “unwanted by consumers, devoid of credibility, and mind-blowingly expensive.”

It called for whoever holds the reins of power after the General Election in May to conduct a review of the project and “consider a fresh start”.

Report author Dan Lewis, senior infrastructure advisor at the IoD, said the political consensus around the project – which was initiated in 2008 by then-energy secretary Ed Miliband and confirmed in the 2010 Coalition Agreement – amounted to “a conspiracy of silence” among politicians.

Though he praised the aims of the scheme, particularly in terms of the benefits it will bring around reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions, Lewis said there was little credible evidence to show that the current scheme would actually accomplish any of its goals.

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The report compared the smart meter rollout to other major government IT disasters, including the NHS National Programme for IT, the eBorders Programme, and the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative.

The IoD offered up several points of evidence to substantiate its concerns, including the fact that 11 other EU states had ruled out smart meters; the fact that the government has still not published any reports on the programme by the Major Projects Authority; and unaddressed concerns around cyber-security.

It went on to claim that the technology behind the scheme was largely untested and risked becoming obsolete over the next five years, and said that the ZigBee wireless standard that has been developed for smart meters is too expensive and complex compared to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

It also said that DECC’s cost-benefit analysis was “so heavily redacted as to be unreadable” and questioned whether or not consumers would – or could – really change their daily energy usage that much without being first subjected to swingeing price rises.

“Consumers do not want the meters, they have proved a costly mistake in countries where they have been rolled out, and the Government is withholding key details about their costs and benefits,” said Lewis.

“This makes for a programme which is devoid of credibility, over-engineered and mind-blowingly expensive. Perhaps the only reason why the cost and ambition of this project has not become a national scandal already is because of a conspiracy of silence among politicians in thrall to big ideas and even bigger budgets."

The IoD suggested a number of measures that could be taken to avert disaster, including stopping the gas smart meter deployment outright; removing the requirement for an in-home display in favour of connection to smartphones or tablets; limiting the rollout to homes identified as high energy users; abandon attempts to install smart meters in multiple occupancy blocks; and making the programme a genuinely voluntary affair for consumers.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, recommended Lewis, the programme should be ditched outright and a smartphone app developed instead which, he said, could convert a simple photo of a consumer meter to a meaningful number for suppliers.

The IoD claimed the cost of going down this route could potentially be measured in the tens of thousands of pounds, as opposed to the billions.

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