The National Audit Office, in its latest report on smart meters, has asked whether the rollout will save money for customers.
That’s a good question for the NAO to ask and its uncertainty over whether consumers will see their energy bills fall after the meters are installed is well-placed. But that’s not the only reason to roll them out.
Compare the switch from fixed-line telephones to smartphones. Are telephone bills lower for consumers now? I guess not, comparing a family with a single fixed line to one where all the members have smartphones and all are using them all the time. But a smartphone is the enabler to so much more, that the cost of making a telephone call is asking the wrong question.
Or compare the change to entertainment and ‘TV’. Again, are consumer costs really lower now than when they had access to four (or, eventually five) channels and paid only the BBC licence fee and the cost of the TV? For anyone with a subscription to another service that’s not the case, but would they like to go back?
I am perversely warming to the supplier-led smart meter rollout, even as it becomes more expensive and less able to deliver on time.
That’s because I have seen so many network-led rollouts where meters were installed extremely fast and very efficiently – but sat on the wall quietly collecting oceans of data for years, without anyone considering what to do with it. Yet new business models are already being launched in the UK that use smart meter data, even before the rollout is complete.
And although the DCC is a car crash, it’s hard not to think it is also a laudable attempt to future-proof a system that has to underpin a very different industry. If you think networks would have done better consider Sweden, which I hear has all its smart meters installed, but which is just now considering how to make them interoperable across 130 – 130! – local distribution system operators all working with their own technologies and operating systems. Companies who might be offering consumers innovative tariffs now expect to hold off for years until that one is resolved.
The energy efficiency case is very important and rightly a major concern of the NAO, as are the costs of the programme. But the opportunity is much bigger than that. That’s why consumer organisations for all their well-justified questions about the rollout, support the aims of the programme. We are where we are; the aim now should be to complete the best possible rollout at least cost. That means making sure consumers see – and can access – both energy efficiency and the wider benefits of smart meters. That starts with SmartEnergyGB, because customer enthusiasm would cut costs and speed up the benefits.