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UTILITY Week 22nd April 2016

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8 | 22ND - 28TH APRIL 2016 | UTILITY WEEK Interview meters, but they are unaware those meters are still calibrated in such a way that they are paying off the debts of previous tenants. This leads Roberts on to the first of a num- ber of sore points he has with the industry at the moment – the CMA. "I can't believe how much they've flip- flopped from a position of saying anyone not on a fixed tariff should be put on a backstop tariff to a point where they might put a backstop deal in place for prepay cus- tomers," he says, displaying his anger by prodding the table. "The CMA has flipped from being over-interven- tionist to being completely feeble-minded about what is needed." The database remedy, whereby anyone who has been on a standard variable tariff (SVT) for more than three years is put onto a shared database, also riles him. "They will be marketed to by people who have been fined for marketing badly. "There is a group of people that are not engaged and they need protection from the wild west market." He adds that the creation of the database will make the disengaged customer, including those in vulnerable circumstances, "victims of aggressive marketing" and leave them relying on the suppliers "taking the hint and treating them better". "I just hope the CMA doesn't result in the suppliers breathing a sigh of relief and thinking they've got away with it." The solution, according to Roberts, could come from Ofgem's shi towards principles-based regulation, and the idea that suppliers should treat their customers fairly. "Sticking a customer on an SVT because they do not bother to let you know if they want another tariff or have not been in much contact with you does not seem fair to me." He says if the regulator looks at fairness in general "rather than if the suppliers are meeting their licence conditions", for vulnerable consumers could begin to improve. As an aside, Roberts mentions beleaguered Npower, which has languished at the bottom of customer satisfac- tion leagues in recent years. He says if the company takes on board the fairness ethos, and "truly understands what went wrong", it could top the customer service charts in three years' time. "It remains quite a big oppor- tunity for them to do right by the customer," he adds, before hypothesising "either that, or their German parent company could sell it." The hope Roberts has pinned on the regulator in the retail market comes from the good work he has seen Ofgem conduct in the network sector – an area in which CSE has been heavily involved. "The regulated monopolies are probably doing more stuff to help people than the [retail] market," he says. He highlights the work on regional programmes by Western Power Distribution in assisting fuel poor households, and the development of the priority customer register. Here, Roberts says Ofgem and the distribution net- work operators have served consumers – especially vul- nerable ones – well but not well enough. Never effusive in his praise, Roberts is critical of the regulator for its role in the smart transition – something you will be able to hear him speak more about at Utility Week Live next month. This transition to smarter cities is already under way – and set to go up a gear – with the rollout of smart meters and the use of the smart data that comes with it. Roberts says this data should be used to "manage the energy sys- tem better" by utilising local balancing and demand-side response measures. To get to this ideal, the networks need to be encouraged to innovate. However, this is where Roberts says Ofgem and the networks themselves, while improved, are still fall- ing short. He says the Low Carbon Networks Fund, which was established to encourage the DNOs to do exactly this type of thing, is currently being used "to just put batteries into people's roofs to help with localised balancing". The DNOs need to think on a bigger scale, while Ofgem has to give them the freedom to do so. The regulator is "a little behind the curve" when it comes to innovation projects, according to Roberts. He gives the example of some community energy schemes that have had to fight, and then find work arounds to, the existing regulatory regime before they can get established. There is a clash between the existing and historic regulatory regime, which Roberts is quick to acknowl- edge has been developed over the years for a reason and a purpose, and what is needed to help the sector going forward. DNO's could do more to shunt this tension into tangi- ble change, insists Roberts. "There are a lot of uncertainties, so we had better embrace it," he says, offering strategies for bringing for- ward the evolution of energy networks by making the most of existing assets and ensuring that pioneering local energy schemes can flourish. While Roberts is supportive of having a long-term vision for smart energy in the UK, he is emphatic that there are changes that can be achieved today in commu- nity and local energy management. These could build a better evidence base for long-term energy aspirations, but are oen being overlooked in favour of future-gazing. Ofgem should keep closer to such ground roots devel- opments, urges Roberts. It should also revisit its defini- tion of community energy. With frustration, he says "it's been narrowly defined as a co-operative-owned PV farm on some local land". Roberts is not alone in being riled by the government's limited understanding of com- munity energy. He's quick to explain CSE's broad inter- pretation and its work to empower local groups and projects which drive engagement in energy – such as helping to develop LED lighting schemes or a draught- proofing drive. In fact, CSE has created "a project in a box" to help budding community energy schemes get off the ground and help those that need assistance with their energy. And that, despite Roberts' obvious interest and work in developing the smart grid of tomorrow, is clearly at the heart of what he does: help customers today – both directly and indirectly – by working with the sector. "There is a group of people that are not engaged and they need protection from the wild west market." Utility Week Live Birmingham, 17-18 May Simon Roberts is speaking at a Utility Week Live keynote conference on Tuesday 17 May as part of a panel discussion on the role of utilities in Smart Cities and driv- ing innovation across and beyond the sector. For more information about Utility Week Live, visit: www.utilityweeklive.co.uk

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