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Thoughts

Are we being smart enough about smart meters?

24th Jul, 2023

According to the latest figures published by the Government1, there were 32.4 million smart and advanced meters installed in homes and small businesses across Great Britain at the end of Q1 2023.

This is no small achievement and means that more than half the homes in Great Britain now have a smart meter, mine included. But is the number of meters on walls a sufficient measure for success? I’m not so sure.

I have a confession to make. Although I have a smart meter, I don’t pay any attention to it. And I suspect that I’m not alone.

It’s not that I disagree with the principle of smart metering. Far from it. Having worked in the energy industry for over 20 years, I can appreciate that there are obvious benefits, both at an individual and national level. After all, the rollout of smart metering is something widely considered to be an essential national infrastructure upgrade for Great Britain. One that has the potential to revolutionise our energy system and to change the way we consume and pay for energy. But right now, I, and I suspect many others, are not using the technology to its full potential.

Why aren’t we getting the full benefits of smart meters?

Of the 32.4 million smart meters and advanced meters that have been installed, just over 3 million are smart meters operating in ‘traditional’ mode. One of the main reasons for this is that some of the first generation of smart meters installed (known as SMETS1) don’t allow consumers to change their supplier without losing the ability for the meter to be read remotely. Measures are being taken to resolve this issue and to restore smart functionality, with SMETS1 meters now being enrolled onto the DCC’s national network (the equivalent of a smart meter telephone exchange). But 3 million is still a significant number.

A more subtle reason, and one that is perhaps harder to quantify, is why consumers choose not to use the supplied In-Home Display (the IHD), to monitor and reduce their consumption.

In my case, our smart meter was installed not long before the Covid-19 Pandemic when we were having some renovation work done to extend our house. The IHD worked for about three weeks and then stopped. With everything else going on I didn’t have the time (or to be honest, the motivation) to contact my energy supplier. So, it went in a drawer. Filed under ‘things to sort out once our house has a back wall again’. Except I never did sort it out. Then our fixed term deal ran out, so we changed energy supplier. Then our energy supplier went bankrupt and our account got transferred to another supplier under the ‘supplier of last resort’ arrangements. So, while the automated meter readings element is still working, as a consumer, we are not realising any other benefits.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t take measures to monitor our family energy usage. I do. My approach just tends to be a bit more ‘old school’. I constantly turn off lights. I edge the thermostat to a temperature more appropriate for Brighton than Barbados. I marvel at my teenage daughter’s ability to play Roblox on her laptop, while in a group facetime on her phone, with music playing on another device in the background. All of them plugged into the mains.

Could I adopt a more technologically advanced method to monitor our family energy usage? Yes. Could I contact my current supplier to see if they would be willing to supply a replacement IHD? Yes. Have I got the motivation? No.

Under the current arrangements, Suppliers must offer their customers an IHD at no added cost when installing a smart meter and then fix or replace IHD’s, as required, within 12-months of installation2. However, in my case I am now well beyond the current 12-month period for a replacement.

Just like everyone else, my time is precious to me. I don’t want the hassle of having to sit in a phone queue trying to contact my energy Supplier in an effort to convince them to repair or replace an IHD that they didn’t install to start with. Just as I don’t want to pay for a replacement IHD (or for the privilege of accessing my own data). Nor do I want the hassle of it potentially not working if I then switch Supplier at a later date for a better deal.

What are the alternatives?

So, are there other options for accessing smart meter data? Yes, there are.

Most suppliers provide access to usage data through your online account. However, this data can’t always be downloaded, and functionality is often quite limited. The Smart Meter itself can also provide a lot of data but knowing which buttons to push, in what sequence, and how many times is far from straightforward. Not to mention that meters are often installed in locations that are not particularly accessible.

The most obvious answer, for me at least, would be an app on my phone. But even this isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.

The concept, from early in the Smart Metering Programme, was for third parties to provide a ‘Consumer Access Device’ or CAD, to allow customers to retrieve their own data. A CAD is a cloud-connected, secure, smart meter gateway device that accesses real-time energy data from smart meters and sends that data to a designated cloud service. This data can then be accessed via an app.

This means that the extent to which you can see your smart meter data, how soon you can see it, and its granularity are dependent on whether you have a CAD. All well and good, but you will need to buy a CAD (generally between £20 and £70) and check it is compatible with your smart meter. Many CADs must also be plugged into or connected to an IHD.

It is possible to access smart meter data via an app without a CAD, but it won’t be in near real time. This delay in accessing data doesn’t really meet my needs. What I want is to be able to instantly see how much a particular action, such as my daughter trying to single handedly bring down the grid at random times throughout the day, is costing me.

What is the solution?

What would incentivise me to engage? In a nutshell, simplicity. The easier it is for me to access the data that my smart meter can provide, in near real time, the more likely it would be that I would make use of it. I doubt I am unique in this respect.

In the short term, it would be good to see an increased focus from Ofgem on ensuring that Suppliers have relevant processes and policies in place to operate their customers IHD’s. We would also urge the Government, Ofgem and Suppliers to work collaboratively to develop new principles relating to IHD repair and replacement to help consumers realise the full benefits of smart metering. This should include processes for fixing non-operating IHDs and replacing broken or misplaced IHDs to ensure consumers continue to have easy access to their consumption data beyond the current 12-month cut-off.

However, in the longer term, another, and perhaps more fundamental factor is that I don’t want more ‘stuff’. The world, and technology, has moved on. Just like I don’t need a DVD player to watch films or a CD collection to listen to music, having an IHD and/or CAD to monitor my energy usage just feels archaic.

Should I be looking to integrate my smart meter with an Alexa or a Siri or to set up some form of integrated alert system? Even ‘Smart Devices’ feel antiquated when new technology such as ChatGPT can undertake tasks like booking a restaurant for me or improving my French. Perhaps it can also encourage my daughter to switch a light off occasionally?

The frontier of technology is continuously moving. So, if we are to realise the full benefits of smart metering and reduce our energy usage, we must continue to move with the times. This means continuing to encourage innovation and new products, continuing to embrace new technologies, and continuing to facilitate easy, yet safe access to data.

The rollout of smart metering remains essential if Britain is to reach net zero. However, I think that a better balance needs to be struck between celebrating the number of smart meters on walls versus the technology enablers that facilitate its benefits. It’s a continuously moving target after all. Just ask ChatGPT.


Footnotes

1 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/smart-meters-in-great-britain-quarterly-update-march-2023

2 Electricity Supply Licence SLC 40 and Gas Supply Licence SLC 34 – https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/industry-licensing/licences-and-licence-conditions

Authors

Dan Simons

Principal Consultant

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