Utility Week

UTILITY Week 7th July 2017

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22 | 7TH - 13TH JULY 2017 | UTILITY WEEK Operations & Assets Analysis T o say there are a lot of problems with the UK smart meter rollout is an understate- ment. If millennials were running our energy companies today, they'd respond to the observation with a jaundiced #nokidding. The rollout methodology for the pro- gramme was unpopular from its inception, with both suppliers and the jilted energy net- works. The technology has suffered setbacks, in-home displays (IHDs) have caused strife, concerns about supply chain readiness and availability of labour have mounded and now, safety concerns are bleeding into the toxic mix of problems. And yet, this infrastructure mega-project is still held up as a symbol of a more opti- mistic energy future – a future of engaged prosumers, of enhanced energy efficiency, of time-of-use tariffs that can support the dynamics of a more flexible, low-carbon energy system. There is an urgent need to resolve this conflict between the programme's challenges and its promise. At Utility Week's Energy Summit at the end of June, EDF Energy chief executive Vincent de Rivaz recognised this. "It is vital that the industry gets this critical project right," he said. The forthright Frenchman has already urged the government to review its tight 2020 deadline for the smart meter programme in order to help deliver a good outcome. At the Energy Summit he reiterated the advice: "I renew my call for all interested parties to come together and review where we are with this immense national project. "Security, safety, quality, customer engagement, cost and timeline, these are the key challenges we are facing and we must address them if we want to make this pro- gramme a success." De Rivaz is right, all of these issues inter- play and exacerbate one another. If they are allowed to continue unchecked, they can only lead to a bodged job and complete the loss of public faith in the energy industry. Of all the challenges listed, however, it's the timeline, along with the lack of any cen- tral project management to co-ordinate the rollout, that is really key. With more time, the other problems that suppliers, contractors, manufacturers and the Data and Communications Company have encountered can be sensibly resolved. Take the growing concern over rollout safety. Industry misgivings about the like- lihood that replacing every meter in the country in quick time would compress and increase the run-of-the-mill safety issues that pop up when meters are exchanged, have been rumbling for some time. At last year's Utility Week Congress, Wales and West Utilities' head of emergency services and metering, Clive Book, said: "Obviously, if you've got to go in and work on every meter installation in the country – or 80 per cent of them – in the next four years, there will be some consequences and we know that now." He added: "When you disturb things, you get leaks, you get problems. However, the volumes could be significant." On 28 June, these industry worries were publicly surfaced in a BBC Watchdog TV pro- gramme that highlighted several consumer case studies where incorrectly fitted or faulty smart gas and electricity meters had caused safety issues in homes. Collecting social media responses to these issues, Watchdog said "loads" more consum- ers got in touch during the live programme to share their experiences and safety concerns about smart meters. In one case, a missing washer on a gas meter led to a leak. In an electricity exam- ple, incorrectly reconnected wires caused a fuse board to burn out, pouring smoke into a child's bedroom. The family involved were clearly shaken – and then enraged since they had to move out of their house while risks were resolved. The errors were described by industry experts on the programme as "unforgivable" negligence. But gas industry veteran Mike Griffin added: "I can't see there not being more mis- takes unless we… take the pressure off the guys who are doing the installing and put the emphasis on a good meter, fitted prop- erly, le safely." Griffin's not the first to say this. Earlier in June, the head of new sales for Siemens' smart metering business, Jon Turner, told Utility Week "there is a risk" that a scramble to get newly trained engineers into the field and deliver smart meter targets could lead to installation quality failures including gas leaks and reverse polarity situations. He spoke of "untold" pressures on meter operators (MOPs) to compete for a meagre pool of qualified and capable installers and emphasised that building this talent pool cannot be rushed. Recruits need "training, post-training, coaching and mentoring", said Turner. In the meantime, the clamour for estab- lished installer skills is causing crippling inflation in the salaries and packages MOPs must offer. This is pushing up the cost of labour on install, an increase that can only be absorbed by the industry for so long before it is passed through to consumer bills, causing yet another public scandal over the cost of the smart meter programme. Like Griffin, Turner suggested that the best way to "take pressure off " installers and mitigate against safety compromises, along with cost escalation, is to take a "realistic" approach to the programme's timeline. On Watchdog, Conservative MP Derek Thomas, who sits on the science and tech- nology select committee responsible for monitoring the smart meter programme, was more explicit. The government has "nothing to lose", he said, by introducing flexibility on the 2020 deadline and conducting a review of safety issues and their contributing factors. Even the BBC's Watchdog presenters, so oen combative in their defence of public Flexible date would be smart The Smart Meter Bill proposes to extend the time the government can intervene in the smart meter programme. Jane Gray asks, could this pave the way for the installation deadline to be put back? "There's no doubt that it's a really challenging programme, there's a lot to be done, but health and safety would never be compromised to meet a target" AUDREY GALLACHER, DIRECTOR OF ENERGY SUPPLY, ENERGY UK

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