Smart meters: full steam ahead or too hot to handle?

Energy smart meters are in the news this week – for good reasons, and for bad.

Let’s start with the bad.

The parliamentary energy select committee, under the chairmanship of Tim Yeo MP, is worried that the timetable for the installation of smart meters in every UK household and business by 2020 is unrealistic.

Under the plans, separate meters for gas and electricity would be installed in 30 million homes and commercial properties over the next five or six years.

The committee wants the government to review the situation to ensure it remains on track and to avoid any embarrassment that missing the objective would bring.

Industry standard

One suggestion is that meters should be installed and operated according to an industry standard. Currently, energy firms participating in the installation programme are acting independently of each other.

Smart Energy UK, which is promoting the roll-out of smart meters, says the project is well under way – but given the numbers involved and the timetable, the MPs would seemed to be justified in questioning whether the ambition will be fulfilled.

And given that the £11 billion cost of installing smart meters will be funded at least in part from energy bills, consumers deserve some reassurance that their money is being spent wisely.

So what’s the good news?

Well, according to Smart Energy, those households that already have smart meters – and there are over one million of them – have declared themselves happy with their hi-tech gadgets.

So for those of us waiting with bated breath, just what is a smart meter?

These devices record energy consumption and, through a separate display unit, show how it is being used.

This has two main advantages:

- you can see what you’re spending on gas and electricity in pounds and pence, and which devices are using the juice. You can then control – and even cut down – your usage (perhaps by turning off a radiator in a room you barely use, or boiling less water in the kettle each time you make a cup of tea);

- your meters communicate electronically with your supplier(s), which means 100% accuracy and no more meter readings or estimated bills.

Smart Energy says more than three-quarters (76%) of people with smart meters think their energy bill is accurate, compared with 57% of with old style meters.

Ease of switching

Crucially, a smart meter can also make it easier to switch energy tariffs because you have all the information you need to make an accurate comparison at your fingertips.

Smart meters can benefit pre-payment customers, too. They show clearly when the power is running out and allow you to top-up your payments.

Meter installation process

Your energy supplier will usually contact you and arrange to supply and fit the smart meter at a mutually convenient time.

There is no upfront cost. But the meters are not free. Customers will be charged an annual amount on their bills to cover the expense, peaking at £11 a year in 2017.

The national rollout gets into full swing next year, so don’t worry if you haven’t yet heard from your energy firm.

You are under no obligation to have a meter fitted, but saying no will not lead to a reduction in your bill.

Please note: any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

* 51% consumers, MoneySuperMarket data, December 2014

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