Craig Edge, Wheatley Associates’ Chief Consulting Engineer, asks if it is time to reconsider whether evolution might be better than revolution.

With yet another delay announced recently to the UK Government’s proposed Smart Meter Implementation Plan, Craig Edge, Chief Consulting Engineer of Wheatley Associates, the UK’s most experienced supplier of metering and asset management software, poses the questions: “Are we trying to be too smart about smart metering in the UK and is it time to reconsider how the roll-out is being implemented? Are we trying to bite off more than we can chew and is evolution better than revolution?”

On 10th May 2013 the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) announced that it was putting back the start of the full-scale UK smart meter roll-out programme by one year to the Autumn of 2015 with targeted completion of the installation of 50+ million smart meters in 30+ million homes and businesses by the end of 2020. DECC stated the main reason for the delay is to give suppliers more time to create the data communications network that will underpin the roll-out.

There is no denying that the smart metering programme has the potential to transform energy management and consumption in the UK, if all goes to plan. Considerable cost savings are potentially available to suppliers and consumers alike. However, it is a colossal undertaking and our track record on IT projects of this scale and scope is not good. With the announcement of this slippage, could it be that the programme we are trying to implement is both over-complicated and over-controlled? How realistic is it to expect the network infrastructure to have the mandated, extended life-span of 20 years? Perhaps the time has come to take stock and ask whether or not we are simply being too ambitious in the UK in trying to implement a one-time solution.

Here, in the UK, with smart metering intended to cover both gas and electricity supplies, we have arguably embarked upon one of the most ambitious implementation programmes yet conceived. Other countries, in contrast, are focusing solely on strategies for electricity. It also seems something of a paradox that, given the UK energy market’s recent history of deregulation and competition, smart metering in the UK has indirectly led us to seek to develop a highly regulated, centralised communications infrastructure to manage the data and energy management requirements. Communication of data to and from smart meters in the domestic sector will be managed centrally by a new, country-wide function covering both the electricity and gas sectors, known as the central data and communications company (DCC).

As the programme generalities give way to the detail of the high level deliverables, there remain a small but significant number of the technical requirements that still do not have a proven solution on the table. The mechanism to make smart metering accessible to almost all customers, in a non-discriminatory manner, is still searching for a capable and reliable technology. Once found, what chance is there that it will still be fit for purpose in twenty years, as required? Surely flexibility and openness to technology advances will be essential for ongoing success? By way of comparison, just consider how the mobile telecommunications industry has developed over the same time period.

The wireless nature of the proposed communications network needed to underpin the smart metering programme also opens up a potential strategic vulnerability to the utility system as a whole. Industry commentators are increasingly expressing concern that this is not being properly addressed. Little consideration has apparently been given to how the proposed wireless network might be hacked and the suggestion is that it will be with ease. With the energy supply system until now largely protected by its invisibility, suddenly there will be a proliferation of potential access and consequently hacking points. The system compliant smart meters that are currently available are also coming in for criticism for their apparent lack of security.

Certainly, the objectives of reducing carbon output, improving competitiveness in the energy sector and increasing energy security are as laudable today as when the Government first mandated the installation of smart meters in October 2008. But, nearly five years on, it is hard to argue that anything has yet changed for UK households or, indeed, that the future holds an abundance of promise. There certainly continues to be a distinct lack of public understanding about the smart metering proposals. Scepticism, disinterest and a simple lack of knowledge abound and, rather than seeking to effect a substantial shift in attitudes, many of the key benefits messages are seemingly being diluted. Certainly, many of the benefits expounded on Government and quasi-Government websites seem alarmingly unambitious for the estimated programme cost of £11.7 billion, a cost that is bound to rise. If you want to be super critical, many of the benefits that smart metering will deliver could be achieved at a fraction of the cost through the installation of simple pre-payment meters!

Nevertheless, smart metering is undoubtedly the way forward. Constantly reviewing the project and slipping the timetable is no bad thing if it ensures that we get it right. But there remains an open question for us all:  should there be a broader and deeper review of the current approach? Having flirted with revolution, and probably rightly so, perhaps it is time to contemplate a more evolutionary approach.