Energy > Stories

Smart meters not so smart 

Nic McBride

Nic McBride
Jan 21, 2018

Having a smart meter was supposed to make life easier for 79-year-old Harry Smith. 

Instead it has made his life more difficult and to make things worse – he is having to take manual readings anyway. 

Harry, from Pittenweem, Fife, thought he would never have to send an energy reading to his supplier again. 

After all, a smart meter is supposed to do that for you.


Flame silhouette

So, he agreed to have a smart meter installed by British Gas. 

But when he switched to EDF last year, the meter was not compatible with his new supplier – meaning he had to manually take readings again. 

The task is not easy for Smith, who turns 80 next month, as his electricity meter is tucked away in a dark cupboard.  

“I have to lie down with a torch to read it,” he told The Sunday Times. 

If that wasn't bad enough, the device is more difficult to read than his old analogue meter.  

Instead of noting down a simple number, he now has to follow a set of instructions to obtain the figure. 

Smith asked EDF to install replacement smart meters so automatic gas and electricity readings could resume – but nothing has happened for nine months.  

EDF has apologised for the delay. 


Customer told he could not switch 

Some people have even stayed on unnecessarily expensive tariffs because they thought they could not switch after having a meter installed. 

Tony Davy, 84, from Leeds, had meters installed by Ovo. 

But when he wanted to switch, Tony said he was told by at least two suppliers that he would not be able to do so because they could not use the device installed by Ovo, even as a non-smart meter.  

More recently, Tony said he contacted other suppliers who told him he could switch but the smart functions of his Ovo meter would not work.


Flame silhouette


Almost one million smart meters not working properly 

So far, 8.6 million meters have been fitted since the roll-out began in 2012. 

BUT, almost a million of these are not operating as smart meters because householders have switched suppliers.  

Energy companies are working on second-generation meters that can communicate with different suppliers - however these are unlikely to be ready for mass roll-out for several months at least.  

Suppliers are also testing a communications hub that would enable existing meters to work with different suppliers when customer switches. 


Smart meter problems 

The Energy Ombudsman received 1,554 complaints about smart meters last year. 

These were mainly for disputes about the amount of gas or electricity used, engineers failing to turn up for appointments or faulty installations, some of which resulted in gas leaks.  

The ombudsman found in favour of householders in more than two-thirds of the cases. 

Every household in the country is supposed to have smart meters installed by the end of 2020.  

However, suppliers have admitted they are unlikely to meet the 2020 deadline. The government is considering extending the date to 2023. 


Smart meters have brought "little benefit" 

The devices have brought little benefit for households, according to Dan Lewis, a senior adviser at the Institute of Directors, a business lobby group.

“Consumers are paying for all of the roll-out and taking all of the risk. Smart meters allow suppliers to avoid site visits and reduce inquiries and customer overheads — there is no downside for them at all,” he said. 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy described smart meters as a “vital upgrade to bring Britain’s energy infrastructure into the 21st century”. 

The government argues that the meters will cut consumption and therefore household bills. However, it has slashed its estimate of how much consumers will save from an average of £26 to £11 a year in 2021. 

In response to mounting criticism from the industry and complaints from consumers, the National Audit Office has just announced an investigation.  

It will assess whether the government is “maximising the chances that smart meters will achieve their intended long-term benefits”. This will be the public spending watchdog’s third inquiry into the meter roll-out in seven years. 

Alan Whitehead, the shadow minister for energy and climate change, condemned the “mishandling of this important programme”.  

He told The Sunday Times: “Potentially, smart meters have considerable benefits for customers and energy services as a whole. However, the government’s botched roll-out has led to a litany of problems, from swathes of old-tech meters being installed to missed installation deadlines to the late start-up of the central communication hub.”