Smart metering in Britain’s competitive energy supply market


By Petter Allison

Against this background are quarterly pedestrian meter reads (most meters are inside customers’ homes), replacing about ten thousand old meters every working day, and dealing with the more than ten percent of customers moving home each year. But the real complication is that overlaid on all this is an “unbundled” metering market, where the meter relationship moves with the energy supply. As a consequence an avalanche of data accompanies every switch of energy supply as the two suppliers’ numerous metering agents (separately the meter owner, operator, reader, data processor) exchange, verify and update their databases. Electricity change of supply, for example, requires 25 “data flows”. Maintaining accurate data and acceptable service levels today is a real challenge – so why hasn’t this already driven the move to smart metering? The answer is in two parts. The first is common to many other countries, in that the business case justification for any one party is absent, even assuming “interoperable” meter standards.

But the second reason is more specific to Britain’s unbundled metering industry, and that is the widespread view that deploying smart meters (and so more meter agents, and more data from more frequent and interval reads), would cause data melt-down in the absence of fundamental industry reform. In addition the natural advantage that smart meters provide – “machine-to-machine” communications in (or near) real-time – would be lost if fed into the unbundled metering industry “daisy chain” of data flows.

Recently a new catalyst for smart meter deployment has emerged in the form of the British government’s policy objective requiring smart meters to help meet national emissions targets. This is predicated on the reasonable assumption that provision of better consumption information to customers (combined with awareness campaigns) will drive demand reductions. Environmental benefits, added to the benefits for customers and benefits to utilities (from clean data and “no more estimated bills”) – the “triple benefit” – has now galvanised Britain into action.

British Gas table

British Gas cost benefit analysis
(Undertaken for British Gas by Frontier Economics)

An analysis by British Gas shows that quite modest energy reduction assump- tions would create a very positive societal benefit, and that accelerated deployment substantially increases these benefits. However, an accelerated deployment doubling or tripling the number of meter exchanges per year substantially increases the costs and strains on utilities, and the risk of very public customer service problems. Radical reform is necessary to move to a simpler metering structure more suited to smart metering where data is more instant and reliable – in contrast to the “daisy chain” data flows supporting the unbundled metering model and pedestrian reads. Crucially, this reform of the multiple agent structure is also required to enable a dual fuel deployment and communications approach.

The benefits from radical reform are clear – £3 billion more value than from an “as-is” deployment, and a de-risking of the operational and data challenges that smart metering bring. Bold action is now required to deliver the triple benefits from smart metering – to customers, the environment, and utilities.