Smartening up the Meters

A decade ago, the UK government of the day decided that Britain’s households should become more energy efficient and a first step was to replace what Centrica referred to as the nation’s ‘dumb’ meters with a more sophisticated upgrade.[1]

These smart meters would be mobile, enabling householders to visualise the spikes and strains on their consumption, reminding them to switch off radiators or lights when not in the room.

At the time, Centrica believed that 45 million old fashioned meters could be replaced by 2017 but that date is now less than three months away and the smart meter rollout is falling so far behind schedule that KPMG estimates that a fivefold increase in the installation rate will be required if the government’s objectives for 2020 are to be met.[2]

Smartening Up the Smart Meters

The reasons for this lack of progress are unclear. In September 2013, the government granted a licence to Capita plc to form a subsidiary, whose sole purpose was, and is, to establish and manage the interface between consumers, energy suppliers, network operators and other authorised users. This infrastructure was originally supposed to be operational in 2015 but has just missed another date for going live. Smart DCC did not explain this latest delay but intimated that there are some technical faults still to resolve:

 As indicated by the Department, the timetable for the roll-out of the new infrastructure will allow for testing of the system to ensure that it will deliver a long-lasting and effective system.

DCC Spokesperson

The rollout programme has its champions: energy companies stand to benefit when they install the meters and ICT firms will be able to use the information retrieved, for example. However, there are also detractors ranging from the respectable Institute of Directors (IoD) to the strident campaigners of Stop Smart Meters! (UK). The IoD’s objections are principally related to the £11bn price tag while the campaigning group proclaims that its concerns are for the health, safety and privacy of consumers.

Anyone who owns a microwave and a mobile phone is likely to dismiss the health warnings [3] but the privacy worries seem a little more rational. The meters will provide detailed information regarding each household’s electricity usage, including which appliances they are using when. This will not just reveal information of commercial use to consumer product manufacturers but would also show patterns of absence which is considerably more alarming. Earlier this year, GCHQ pointed out that a single encryption key had been used for all smart meters, providing a potential bonanza to any hackers. The European Data Protection Supervisor is also aware of the threats to privacy and this may be one of the reasons why the UK has insisted on the advanced and complex technology which the IoD criticises.

In reality, the whole smart meter programme decision was not so much made in Westminster as in Brussels and cynics now wonder whether the new government of Mrs May will have the will to implement a directive that may cease to be binding over the next few years or even months.

But, as one energy executive commented:

 “It’s got to be done – we’ve sunk so many millions into it,” he said. “But how good will it be and how reliable will it be?”[4]


[1] The Guardian.  Energy industry says meter plan is too low tech.  1 November 2007.

[2] KPMG.  Fivefold increase in smart meter installation rate needed.  30 September 2016.

[3] Electrosensitivity UK.  My ill health from wireless smart meters.  2012.

[4] BBC.  Smart meter IT system delayed until autumn.  17 August 2016.