Smart meter rollout in the UK: towards a low carbon future?

On 19 November consumer rights group Which? published a report warning energy suppliers that they need to triple the current rate of smart meter installation to meet the target of replacing existing meters in every UK home by 2020. This would mean installing 30 smart meters  per minute every day for the next two years to replace the existing 46 million meters, which is a challenge to say the least. Back in August 2018, Citizens Advice was already calling for the deadline to be extended for another three years.

The same day the Which? report came out, the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) hosted an event bringing together key stakeholders to discuss the progress of the smart meter rollout, its challenges and opportunities and how the technology can contribute to the low carbon transition.

A panel of speakers from Citizens Advice, Smart Energy GB, the Energy Saving Trust and energy supplier Npower all provided their perspective on the Smart Meter Implementation Programme, the largest government-run information technology project in history.

Image by Nora Blascsok

 

A key topic of discussion at the event was how the rollout is communicated in mainstream media. Despite its challenges, participants agreed that the rollout can be regarded a success, however, stakeholders needed to come together and create a positive narrative, a message to consumers they all can get behind. This message should emphasize the fact that smart meters are a step towards a better future and a technology that will empower consumers to participate in the new energy world.

Another point highlighted was the way smart meters are a means to an end. Alongside the direct benefits of helping consumers understand their energy use better, minimise energy waste, access energy when most affordable and least carbon intensive; they should also lead to people installing more energy efficiency technologies. They can not only help link data to the provision of energy advice, but also, help drive action to achieving energy efficiency standards – the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards set by the UK government (all homes to be EPC band C or higher by 2025, fuel poor homes by 2030).

The panellists also focused on the importance of not leaving anyone behind. Smart meters can not only make prepay more affordable –a metering method mostly used by low-income consumers – they will help vulnerable consumers keep track of their energy use, lead to accurate bills and put an end to back-billing. However, as an audience member pointed out, there are questions around whether it is the consumer who is making the significant saving or the energy supplier.

Another take-away message was the importance of consumer choice and the problematic issue of the 2020 deadline. There have been calls to make the installation of smart meters mandatory, however, this would eliminate the incentive to make a pitch and sell the benefits allowing consumers to have a choice in the matter. Furthermore, having to prioritise speed due to the deadline will likely go to the detriment of quality or cost, as one panel member pointed out.

Regarding issues around trust, it was highlighted by an audience member that there needs to be more transparency around how suppliers use consumers’ data. Setting tariffs based on energy use profiles could affect vulnerable consumers, as their flexibility around when they use energy is limited.

The discussion provided a lot of food for thought and linked well into the research done at CIED around smart homes, the media discourse around the rollout and the issues around vulnerable consumers and their response to the rollout.

The SMIP is certainly not without its challenges but if all stakeholders work together, the technology will enable a faster transition to a low carbon future.

Find out more about our work on smart meters.