Smart meters 'a waste of money', MPs told

An electric kettle Smart meters should allow people to work out how much electricity is used by boiling a kettle

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The plan to introduce smart meters into every home across Britain is a "waste of money", MPs have been told.

The units are designed to show people exactly how much energy they are using at any time, but the project has been delayed by a year because of problems.

Energy analyst Alex Henney said people could be given live information on their energy use via weblinks or smartphone apps much more cheaply.

He told the energy select committee the smart meter scheme would cost £600m.

A smart meter is a device which provides real-time information about how much gas and electricity is being used - and how much it costs - to the customers and to the energy provider.

The idea is that this should encourage people to cut energy use or switch their energy consumption to off-peak hours, for example by using the washing machine at a different time of day.

Questions about value for money

The original plan to require energy firms to offer smart meters with in-home displays to every home in Britain was announced by Ed Miliband when he was Climate Change Secretary in the last Labour government. The coalition has continued with the plan.

Under this plan, the energy suppliers will pay to install and maintain the meters, and they will pass on this cost to their customers. The hope is that in the long run the energy companies and customers will save more than the displays cost.

But in evidence to the Commons Energy and Climate Change committee Mr Henney said that they would cost around £600m to introduce nationwide, and predicted that "around half" of them would never be used.

He said: "You've got to ask yourself, firstly what proportion [of the public] are going to use it (the in-house display), and secondly why can't they use their smartphones or their computers?"

The government will be running a computer system to co-ordinate the information received by smart meters.

In written evidence he had previously given to the committee, Mr Henney, a former London Electricity board member and author of various books and studies on energy issues including smart metering, said the technology behind the scheme was "another government IT disaster in the making".

Delays and cost over-runs

When asked if he thought the in-home units were good value Tony House, from energy company SSE, said that "for an increasing segment of the population... the benefits are better delivered through something other than an in-home display".

This project has run in to delays, and the main roll-out is now not expected to begin until 2015.

Start Quote

A typical IT project of this complexity over-runs its declared timescale and cost by 100%”

End Quote Dr Martyn Thomas Chairman of the IT Policy Panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology

Dr Martyn Thomas, from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said the new time-frame was "better than the old one", and that the time the project takes should be judged by engineers, not by "politicians or by senior civil servants for political reasons".

He criticised the government for beginning the large-scale trial of the project before a final specification for the smart meters had been agreed, and said that this could cause serious problems when the project went nationwide.

He added that "a typical IT project of this complexity over-runs its declared timescale and cost by 100%".

Also giving evidence to the select committee was Dave Openshaw from UK Power Networks, which runs the electricity distribution grid in the south east. He said that smoothing energy consumption over the course of the day would be important for grid management in the future.

He mentioned the scenario where people all chose to charge electric cars when they came home from work, creating a power spike. If people could be persuaded to switch consumption to other times with lower tariffs, then this would be avoided.

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