Social distancing halts smart meter rollout

Smart meter installation

Energy watchdog Ofgem has been caught flouting the government’s recently introduced social distancing guidelines, according to a report by The Telegraph. The measures, which looked to stem the coronavirus outbreak by avoiding close contact with others, were introduced prior to the UK’s initial three-week emergency lockdown.

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Ofgem in Smart Meter faux pas

A leaked letter, sent on 18 March showed the industry regulator instructing suppliers to continue entering customers’ homes to install smart meters, so as not to further delay the government’s extended rollout deadline, despite the outbreak being recognised as a global pandemic a week earlier.

In the letter, Ofgem stated that suppliers remained under an obligation to take 'all reasonable steps' to deliver the smart meter rollout by the end of 2020.

The gas and electricity market regulator has since faced a backlash from suppliers, with at least one energy firm chief executive stating that they were prepared to take legal action should they be forced to continue sending engineers into customers’ homes to install smart meters.

Energy UK, the trade association for the industry, has responded by urging its members to suspend “all non-essential field-based activities”, including smart meter installations. Ofgem has now gone back on its demands, accepting that the majority of home energy suppliers will only send technicians out in case of an emergency at this unprecedented time.

Ofgem had previously issued guidelines on installing smart meters following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in the UK, instructing energy suppliers to establish beforehand if there is anyone in the home vulnerable to coronavirus symptoms, such as those over 70 or with underlying health conditions and advising engineers to wash their hands upon entry, while keeping their distance from customers during the installation process.

Now it is believed that the regulator has accepted that most suppliers will only carry out necessary emergency meter exchanges, given that it would be virtually impossible to abide by government recommendations on non-contact when entering homes.

Along with pressure from Ofgem over smart meter installations, most suppliers have been inundated with calls since the government-enforced lockdown began.

Marissa Lieberman, an energy expert with Selectra, said: “Certain suppliers seem to be much more difficult for customers to get through to at the moment.”

“Many of the same issues with prepay meters are still occurring during this crisis, such as top-up difficulties or customers losing keys and these situations are heightening the pressure on suppliers.”

One effect of the lockdown appears to be some customers warming to the idea of smart meters, particularly those working from home and therefore using more energy than before.

“Some customers were very reluctant to install smart meters previously, but now many are seeking advice on how to set up their online accounts for the first time. Many customers on standard pay as you go meters are calling to ask if it’s possible for a remote top-up over the phone and most are incredibly receptive to the idea of installing a smart meter now, amidst this crisis.”

Boost is currently installing smart meters for customers again and this has been very beneficial for this particular supplier. We’ve seen a huge increase in customers switching supplier to Boost so they can book in smart meter installations.”

What is a smart meter?

Smart meter

Smart meters allow the user to monitor and track their gas and electricity consumption in realtime via an in-home display, while using wireless networks to communicate this information to the energy provider directly. Promoted as an end to estimated bills and a way of making switching supplier and tariff easier, smart meters have already faced delays and controversy over health and privacy concerns.

Initially outlined in the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto, the government planned for every household and business to be offered the option of installing a smart meter by the end of 2020. This was pushed back by four years to the end of 2024 in September of last year and the initial delay was estimated to take the total cost of the smart meter rollout scheme to £13bn.

Now, following the coronavirus outbreak that target is looking even more unlikely, given that there will be next to no installations for at least three weeks during the enforced lockdown. It is widely expected that Ofgem will be more lenient with the 2024 deadline in the current unprecedented circumstances.

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