British Gas Starts Major Smart Meter Roll-Out

Max ‘Beast from the East’ Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope.

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Replacing smart meters with… smart meters?

British Gas has started rolling out its next-generation smart meters to UK premises, following a pledge by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) last week to supply all homes in the UK with a smart meter by 2019.

DECC has also set out guidelines and requirements for smart meter introduction, which mean that 200,000 previous generation devices already installed by British Gas will have to be replaced with the new systems.

The energy provider claims its Phase 3 smart meters with touch screen displays are the most advanced in the world. They will bring an end to estimated bills and inform users about their level of energy consumption through a traffic light system, British Gas said.

The good

A smart meter records consumption of electric energy or gas in intervals of an hour or less, and communicates that information at least daily back to the utility provider for monitoring and billing purposes.

The British Gas rollout is part of a country-wide £11.7 billion project to replace 30 million gas and electricity meters by 2019. It is expected to produce £18.6 billion worth of savings over twenty years.

The government first outlined its plans for the smart meter roll-out in July 2010, with analysts predicting that the adoption of smart meters in Europe would reach 52 percent by 2016 as households seek to reduce their demand for energy in the face of increasing costs.

The clever devices make energy consumption visible, helping users to cut down on their bills and as a result, reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Once installed, meters will enable customers to compare their gas and electricity use by the hour, day, week and year.  They will also be able to set their own energy targets.

“The Government has given the green light to the roll out of smart meters to every home and business in Britain. This means that households will find it easier to cut their energy use and save money,” said Dean Keeling, managing director of British Gas Smart Homes division.

“There have been 130 smart meter programmes in the world so far,” Pilgrim Beart of energy management company AlertMe told TechWeekEurope in January. “Most of those were put in by the utilities, for the utilities. This sort of installation can provide remote and more accurate meter readings, and improve efficiency, but only to the extent of about three percent.”

Thirty of the world’s smart meter rollouts have given the user an in-home display, said Beart, and these have provided much greater benefits, with “an eight percent saving on energy used in the home”.

The bad

British Gas claims that because the new smart meters can be updated remotely, there will be no need to have them removed and refitted in the future, making it hassle-free for households. However, 200,000 of the previous, non-upgradeable smart meters will now have to be replaced.

“The ability to future proof smart meters is a critical consideration for those still planning their smart meter rollout and something we have long been championing. With much fragmentation in the market and until now, little guidance from the government, companies must plan now to avoid costly revisions when the roll-out is in full swing,” Mark England, CEO at Sentec, told TechWeekEurope.

Previously, the benefits of smart meters have been called into question. Some analysts thought the overall cost of the project was underestimated, and the real number is closer to £15 billion.

There have also been claims that these smart meters could be successfully attacked by hackers and that the government and the industry had rushed to develop the technology without considering all of the possible security issues.

Some especially panicked netizens went as far as to claim the non-ionizing radiation produced by the new meters can lead to human cell damage, cancer and sterility.

Addressing some of the more reasonable concerns, the DECC has unveiled a set of guidelines that it says will put “consumers’ interests at the heart of the government’s smart meter programme”.

The guidelines focus on properly informing consumers how to use meters to save energy, restricting third-party access to user data and ensuring that installation visits are not used as sales opportunities.

The UK has been lagging behind other European countries in smart meter adoption. Last year, the meter penetration rate in Italy was 94 percent, and at least 70 percent in every Scandinavian country.

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