Savaged by Parliamentery committees and consumer watchdogs, the people behind the government’s smart meter plan need to get work on their figures, says Peter Judge
Those involved with the smart meter scheme must have been expecting trouble for some time. It’s supposed to deliver benefits in too many directions, and is based on the co-operation of the energy utilities – which people do not trust.
A couple of years ago, it sounded like a good idea that was worth looking into. A little while down the line, it still sounds like a good idea, but there doesn’t seem to be – at least not according to the UK’s Public Accounts Committee – much hard evidence that it is really going to work.
Show us the money
The idea of smart meters is that they will allow consumers to reduce the energy they use in their homes and offices. By making energy use visible, they will let people turn devices off and through actual network connections, they can be used to tune and switch off the electrical equipment which is using the power.
However there have always been questions about this. How much time do users have to play with their smart meters, given that the benefits may not be immediately obvious?
Many companies are out there, claiming they can get past the issue of user apathy. One that I’ve met is Alertme (pictured). Alertme’s device links to home networks, and sends updates to an iPhone app. It’s also part of a scheme where households can compete to be the best at cutting energy use.
However, in practice, is that exciting enough? I have to confess that I have had an AlertMe smart meter at home since before Christmas. The company is keen that I should try it out as soon as possible, but in practical terms, playing with a smart meter comes low down the list of activities for most people’s time off.
I simply haven’t got round to it yet, and I believe that would be the fate of most smart meters delivered to households.
£11 billion fiasco?
The consumer site Which? tends to agree. Executive director Richard Lloyd has said the government should stop the smart meter roll-out, describing it as a “potential £11 biillion fiasco”.
Which? commissioned a study from the Centre for Sustainable Energy, which concluded that the costs were not being controlled, and would be passed on to consumers. Consumers also feared that energy companies would use the smart meter campaign as an opportunity to cross-sell other products.
Which? was scornfull of suggestions that competition would keep the costs down, as energy companies have proven remarkably resistant to the concept of competition in recent months. In short, consumers don’t trust energy companies, and the benefits are unproven.
“‘The government must not write a blank cheque on behalf of every energy customer, especially at a time when millions of people are struggling to pay their bills,” warned Lloyd.
I’d like to think, along with the Public Accounts Committee, that it isn’t time to pull the plug. I want to believe in a technology-based solution, but I do know that both Which? and the PAC are right: the smart meter movement really needs to provide better figures.