Utility Week

UTILITY Week 22nd January 2016

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10 | 22nd - 28th January 2016 | utILIty WEEK Interview "I'm not expecting massive issues, but realistically there will be issues. This period at the beginning when the vol- umes are quite low is a learning opportu- nity for everybody," he says Delays will exacerbate another bone of contention in the national smart meter programme: foundation meters. Energy suppliers have not waited for the introduc- tion of the DCC network before beginning to install smart meters, and around two million "foundation" smart meters have already been installed. Although these meters provide customers with smart functionality, they do not meet the necessary specification for the national rollout and a decision has yet to be made about how, or even if, these meters will be adopted on to the DCC network. Back in November, SSE spoke out against the rise in foundation meters, predicting that a quarter of all smart meters will be of foundation specification, posing a "massive risk" to the industry's ability to future-proof the rollout. A key concern is whether foundation meters will be adopted on the network, rather than replaced with meters that meet the final specification. Simcock does not agree that they pose a risk. He wholeheartedly supports the government's decision to allow a two-staged release (foundation meters followed by certified smart meters) on the basis that it has brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the programme. This is worth the "complexity" of having two generations of meters, he says. "To me there is no risk about future proofing, but it does add some complexity because we have to go back and bring them in. It's all a bit historic now, but for what it's worth I think it was a wise decision," Simcock concludes. He also points out that only two million out of 50 mil- lion meters have so far been installed, so SSE's estimate of a quarter being foundation "seems a bit high". The DCC is working on a feasibility report detail- ing various solutions to bring all foundation meters on board, and this is expected in the second half of this year. Whether a meter becomes a stranded asset or not will depend on the cost-effectiveness of the proposed solution. "I don't believe there will be very large numbers of stranded meters. There may be a very small number where the technical fix to get them on the DCC network is very expensive. It may well be that the right value-for- money answer is not do it. That's purely hypothetical at the moment." As for how much adopting foundation meters will cost, Simcock says it is simply "too early to tell". What is sure is that consumers who have jumped in early to embrace smart metering will have the dubious privilege of being locked out of joining the DCC network until at least 2018, because that is when work will start on getting foundation meters on the network. In the meantime, if they switch supplier they may lose smart functionality. The other major problem with foundation meters is that even if they are adopted, they will not provide the benefits distribution network operators need in order to transition to smart grids. Despite all the noise made about the immediate benefits to consumers of accurate billing and faster switching, it is this transformation which will deliver many of the crucial elements of the more dynamic, low carbon and distributed energy system of the future. Considering the entire smart meter programme is costing £11 billion, DNOs could be forgiven for expecting to get more from this once-in-a-lifetime level of investment than they are currently guaranteed. One of the biggest benefits DNOs are looking for from smart meters is the ability to know via an alert when a customer has lost power, sent out by the meter as its final act before the connection goes dead. Currently, DNOs are in the dark about outages until customers phone them and tell them about it, which generally takes around three minutes. The "last breath" outage alert from the DCC, while sound in principle, takes around five minutes to reach the DNO. There is a similar delay on the "first breath" alert sent to DNOs by the meter when power is restored. Simcock admits that these issues only came to light last year. "Because of the telecoms solutions that we have, in some circumstances they will get that alert a few minutes later than they would ideally like. "The moment that became clear we started working with them [the DNOs] and have been for some months. We will continue to work with them until we get to the best possible outcome for them." Will a solution that keeps all parties happy be achieved by the go-live date? Simcock is "quite confident". He points out that it is important to remember that the DCC will be continually tweaked and improved during the roll- out. "I think that like all our customers they will rightly continue to be demanding about service levels and there will be a never ending journey of improvement." The DCC already has more than enough on its plate over the four years, but the business plan des also hints at the future beyond smart metering. Built into the DCC's licence is the ability to use the only "highly reliable, highly secure national communi- cation and data infrastructure that is connected to every premises in the country" to offer services to other sectors once the smart meter rollout has been completed. What these "value-added services" might be isn't yet clear, and is a discussion for another day, Simcock says. "As of today, nobody wants to talk about that. People can fantasise about all kinds of different things, but we are sometime away from beginning. "It's really exciting, but its excitement we have to hold our horses on. It's the programme that just keeps on giving." Let's hope for the energy industry's sake what the programme keeps giving is a flawless network on time, with a cost-effective solution for foundation meters and speedy alerts, rather than a series of unexpected hiccups and further setbacks. "I'm not expecting massive issues, but realistically there will be issues. This period at the beginning when the volumes are low is a learning opportunity"

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