When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price – but by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.

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