Millions of homes that use ‘smart’ meters to monitor their gas supply could get cut off without warning this winter. This is part of the problems that have plagued smart meters since their rollout began just over a decade ago.
So far, about 19million homes have had meters installed – though up to 14million have so-called first generation devices that can sometimes go ‘dumb’ and only work like a traditional meter if you switch supplier.
While electric smart meters are wired into the National Grid, the gas ones are powered by batteries designed to last for at least a decade. This means thousands of batteries could fail in the coming months. Once the gadget dies, the gas supply in some cases is automatically turned off and an engineer has to replace the battery unit before the supply is reconnected.
‘Fiasco’: The smart meter rollout has been plagued with problems. Now gas meters may even cut off supplies
Retired aircraft controller Derek King has suffered the inconvenience of his gas smart meter dying, leaving him temporarily without gas. He only discovered the smart meter had stopped working when his heating did not come on as normal.
The married 73-year-old, from Rushden in Northamptonshire, says: ‘I cannot believe there was no fail-safe mechanism. When the meter died, the gas suddenly just cut off without any warning. It could have happened on Christmas Day with a turkey in the oven, or to someone more vulnerable than myself, maybe living alone.’
Derek called local gas pipe supplier Transco on the recommendation of a boiler mechanic he had spoken to who thought the problem with his gas supply was a result of an external gas leak. But the Transco engineer soon identified the problem as a ‘dead’ smart meter. He replaced it for free with an old-fashioned meter not requiring batteries. It meant Derek was without gas for a day.
Experts say that as many as 11million devices are vulnerable to failure in the next few years.
Alex Henney is a former Government adviser who worked with former Secretary of State for Energy, Cecil Parkinson, in the late 1980s on energy privatisation. He says: ‘Potentially leaving people stranded with no gas in the middle of winter is an indication of the incompetent way this entire installation programme has been run. It should be halted immediately. We should have waited for all smart meter technology to be fully tested before being imposed on the nation.’
He adds: ‘This whole smart energy meter fiasco is a huge waste of money that hits the poor people hardest – as the bill for this ridiculous project is paid for by homes through higher energy bills.’
The smart meter project has so far cost £13.5billion with more than £220million being spent on marketing to encourage everyone to accept a smart meter. Smart Energy GB, the organisation overseeing the rollout, says gas smart meters use lithium ion batteries and should have at least a ten-year life span. It admits that during the rollout of the early smart meters – known as ‘Smets 1’ units – it was down to individual suppliers as to whether gas would be turned off or left on when a battery failed.
But it says all equipment should send out a so-called ‘dying breath’ signal when a battery is running low to alert the energy firm to send out an engineer to replace it. A Smart Energy GB spokesman says: ‘A battery failure should be a very rare occurrence as the battery fitted to a smart meter is expected to have an average lifespan of 15 years. When a battery charge becomes low, suppliers are able to arrange for an engineer to fit a replacement before it runs out.’
Gordon Hughes is professor of economics at the University of Edinburgh and a former senior adviser on energy and environmental policy at the World Bank. He says: ‘When the early smart gas meters were rushed out, many experts felt the batteries would last longer than the meters. The gas supply would have been designed to turn off when the battery died, as companies were concerned fraudsters might take advantage of the situation – and get gas for free.’
On Friday, British Gas said its older meters are ‘fully compliant with BEIS [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] specifications’ and that they should ‘continue to supply gas should the battery ever fail’. At that stage, it would receive an ‘automated warning’ that the battery had failed.
Npower insisted ‘the gas valve does not change when a battery is depleted’ – in other words the gas does not turn off. Eon said that when a gas meter battery starts to lose its power, it is ‘informed as part of the remote communication that takes place between the meter and our systems’.
Dying gas smart meters are the latest problem to beset the rollout of the devices. The £13.5billion project started in 2009 and all homes were meant to have a smart meter installed by this year – enabling energy suppliers to remotely read how much power is used.
But it is currently running four years late. It had originally been intended to have been completed this year – with gas and electricity smart meters put in all 27million homes. Claims that smart meters cut energy bills have been criticised as misleading. Although smart meters allow a device to be installed so that energy use can be monitored, the only way the new technology helps consumers save money is if it encourages them to change their usage habits. The verdict on this remains open.