Flagship government smart meter programme suffers latest delay

Jake Cordell
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Smart meters are designed to promote better awareness of energy use
Smart meters are designed to promote better awareness of energy use

The government's multi-billion pound smart meter programme has suffered its latest setback today as the launch of a crucial bit of the project has been delayed.

The new IT system, which links the in-house smart meters directly to the energy companies, was due to be launched today, but the BBC reported the government has now quietly kicked that back until at least the end of September.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: "The new infrastructure is planned to go live at the end of September, it is currently being tested to deliver a long-lasting, world class system to billpayers."

The newly-created BEIS said the delay won't disrupt the rollout of the overall programme as the government still intends to have smart meters in every home and business by the end of 2020.

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The smart meter programme was a flagship coalition policy which was designed to encourage consumers and businesses to keep a closer eye on their energy and gas usage, as well as make switching between providers easier. By linking up directly with the utility companies it would also end the need for cumbersome manual meter readings and estimated billing.

The launch is budgeted to cost £11bn, though the government claims it will deliver £17bn in wider economic benefits.

However, the programme has been beset with problems. Earlier this year the World Energy Council slammed the UK's approach to rolling out smart meters and said there were a number of "concerns" about the scheme.

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The new IT system built to handle the swathes of data collected by smart meters is managed by the Data and Communications Company (DCC), a separate body established to run the smart meter network. The launch of the communications infrastructure was originally meant to go ahead in 2015 - meaning the latest delay puts it one year behind schedule.

More than 3.5m smart meter devices have been installed across the UK already, according to the latest government figures. A survey for Smart Energy GB, the government's publicity body tasked with promoting the programme, earlier this week found 80 per cent of people who had installed smart meters said they were taking measures to reduce their energy usage.

Energy expert at Pinsent Masons, Nick Shenken, said: “The delay in the operation of the DCC's communications infrastructure is likely to be met with industry frustration. It’s important that the delay isn’t allowed to drift further.

"This isn’t just about rollout targets being achieved, it’s about consumers having the benefit of the associated technology as quickly as possible. Those benefits might be as simple as ensuring they don’t have estimated bills going forward, but it’s equally important for future benefits which will be realised as we move towards concepts such as time-of-use tariffs.