The smart meter market in the UK is set to thrive over the next few years. Frank Bertie discusses how the government plans to progress the rollout of the meters – and shares how they could transform the way the country uses its energy

Smart meters are significantly changing the way consumers track their energy usage. The meters, which are installed at no extra cost to customers, show homes and businesses exactly how much energy they are using and how much it is costing them by displaying the information on a small display screen. This information is then fed directly back to the energy supplier, meaning an end to estimated bills. While not compulsory, meters are currently installed in almost 9.5 million premises across Great Britain, and the government is aiming to have 53 million meters installed by 2020. With clear benefits being offered to customers, energy suppliers and the environment, the wider adoption of smart meters is revolutionising our energy landscape.

Governments across the world are turning to smart meters as a way of complying with increasingly stringent regulations surrounding energy usage and climate change. The UK is targeting a reduction of 57 per cent in emissions between 1990 and 2032, and reducing the amount of energy used will contribute greatly towards meeting this target. Research into the use of smart meters across the European Union suggests that they will help in this regard, claiming that households with smart meters use ten per cent less energy on average than those with more traditional meters.

However, to truly persuade home and business consumers of the advantages of this technology, the results need to be felt in the pocket. Initial government estimates suggest that customers will save around £15 on electricity bills and £12 on gas bills per year – figures which are hardly a persuasive argument on their own. Studies by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), however, claim that savings will increase over time, with households spending £33 less on energy per year by 2025, and £47 less per year by 2030. When applied to businesses, a cost-benefit analysis performed by the government in 2016 claimed that an average annual saving of £128 could be expected by 2020, increasing to £147 by 2030. There is a likelihood, though, that these estimates rely on customers choosing to reduce their energy usage when they can see exactly how much money it is costing them – something which is not always practical or even possible for all energy users.

The changes to the energy industry will become ever more apparent as smart meter adoption becomes more universal. Smart meters have the ability to join together to form a ‘smart grid’, providing a clear picture of exactly when and where energy is being used. This would allow the energy network to better manage supply and demand, and to integrate renewable energy when it is plentiful. This kind of integration will be invaluable as more and more machines forsake fossil fuels in favour of electricity. With increased demands on the national grid, being able to call upon a range of energy sources may be the only way to keep the lights on across the country in a carbon-neutral age.

A ‘smart grid’ will have clear benefits for the homeowner as well. Live information about nationwide levels of energy demand could lead to appliances being able to tell when energy prices are low, allowing users to control or authorise them to switch on at that point. Appliances could even be programmed to ‘store’ power, taking it from the network when demand is low in order to use it, or even put it back into the network, at peak times. Overall, it is hoped that this type of system will allow a much bigger saving on energy.

As is common with emerging technologies, the first wave of smart meters to be rolled out weren’t perfect. The first generation of meters (meeting the requirements of Smart Meter Equipment Tech Standards 1, or SMETS1) lost their ‘smart’ capabilities if customers switched energy suppliers, which could potentially have negated any savings they made by swapping tariffs. Introducing a central communication network should solve this problem, as the new wave of meters (SMETS2) will allow consumers to switch energy companies while retaining their place on the smart grid.

The development of smart meters must not, however, stop with SMETS2. At present, they are not suitable for use in apartment blocks, where the distances between meters and flats is simply too great. Further strides also need to be made to fully integrate renewable energy sources into smart meters; for example, meters can’t display how much energy is being generated by solar panels. It is these kinds of areas which need to be tackled if the government’s ‘smart grid’ dream is to be fully realised.

As smart meter technology continues to improve, so does the way in which the benefits of the technology are communicated to consumers. Ofgem have made changes to the smart meter Installation Code of Practice (SMICoP) for 2018, ensuring that organisations tailor their advice specifically to the customer they are talking to. While advice has always been available online, it is hoped that bringing this information directly in front of consumers will give them all the information they need to decide whether to take the plunge. The Code of Practice also plays a vital role in laying down conditions for the safe installation of meters.

Traditional global energy resources are under constant pressure, and conserving these resources is a high priority. By giving consumers and energy suppliers a better idea of how much energy they are using, smart meters could help to reduce fossil fuel usage and ensure that renewable energy sources are better-placed to pick up the slack. By understanding the cost savings from these 21st Century technologies, we can make conserving our energy resources a reality, which will benefit us all.

Frank Bertie is NAPIT’s Technical Director. Established for over 25 years, NAPIT has grown into a successful group of companies and operates a number of enterprises via a range of business divisions, including: NAPIT Trade Association, NAPIT Registration, NAPIT Certification, NAPIT Inspection and NAPIT Training.

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