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Comment - Smart meters: The intelligent choice?


Marina Stedman

The UK’s smart meter roll-out programme has already started. But there are only around 2 million meters installed to date, and a total of 53 million must be installed in homes and small businesses by 2020. The government, and more than 30 energy suppliers are tasked with placing these meters, and they’re facing a race against time.

The project will be at its peak in 2018, and will require nearly 900,000 meters per month to be installed by over 6,000 installers, according to Smart Energy GB, a national campaign for the smart meter rollout. Arranging to visit these customer and business premises and successfully completing the installations will be a huge undertaking.

The idea of a smart meter is a great one: it allows consumers to accurately monitor their energy consumption and the cost in real-time, and automatically keeps providers up-to-date. It means that energy providers can work more efficiently by analysing consumer usage data to forecast and predict demand, helping to streamline services and improve the customer experience by advising them on ways to use energy more efficiently. Utility providers can also save time, fuel and money without a need to chase customers to read their own meters or to send out staff to take manual readings.

On the consumer side, the government’s goal is to encourage behavioural change by giving householders real-time and accurate information on how much energy they are using and what for. This will help to reduce usage, cut monthly bills, and minimise the carbon footprint. 

So, with an estimated £11.7 billion of costs, funded by consumers in their bills, a predicted saving of £17 billion, according to Smart Energy GB, and an obvious raft of efficient, economic and eco-friendly advantages to reap, why is the government in danger of missing its targets?

This is one of the largest projects in Europe to date, and various challenges arise from both the size and the complexity of the roll out. Co-ordinating consumers and small business owners, governmental organisations and utility companies is no easy feat, especially when it’s not mandatory for anyone to have a smart meter installed. In addition, the common infrastructure for connecting smart meters to the business systems of energy suppliers and other authorised service users is not yet live, causing further delays to the programme.

So what can be done to help the government and utility providers deliver the programme on time with the best possible customer experience and minimum costs? Utility providers need to speed up the process of getting customer buy-in and make it fast and easy for them to have smart-meters installed. Both they and the UK government need to communicate the economic and environmental benefits of the meters, while at the same time convincing consumers and businesses that they are in control of their smart meter-data and that their data privacy will be respected.

As mentioned before, there is no obligation for a householder or small business owner to have a smart meter installed. Suppliers typically target a block of streets for installation, sending letters that ask customers to book appointments. They then send multiple teams to that location on target days, hoping that enough customers who have booked appointments will make the effort to stay at home and await the engineer’s arrival. This method is clearly inefficient with energy providers struggling to schedule the right engineers with the right skills to the right houses at the right time. Does the household require a meter for dual or single fuel for example? In addition, they are finding it difficult to keep track of the progress of jobs and the location of each engineer and inform customers when their technician is due to arrive. Customers who are used to “instant” notifications, for example, when parcels will be delivered or when their Uber taxi will arrive, find this very frustrating. No one likes to wait for an engineer to show up, particularly when they don’t know where they are or when they’re coming. 

The best solution to this problem is to combine all of these variables into one integrated system. Take a “multi-stage task” approach that links directly to in-house CRM and/or ERP customer contact data, combines appointment bookings, staff scheduling and availability, and allows access to information for engineers via mobile devices, as well as real-time updates on appointment timing and arrival status for customers. 

Having all this in place means energy providers will run the service more efficiently and cut the risk of aborted appointments, for which a penalty fee may be payable to the consumer, and consumers know who will be turning up and exactly when they need to be home. It also means that, should an engineer be running late or might potentially miss a booking, another appointment can be made or the customer can be told how long the delay will be. Through this system, providers can utilise previous historical data to optimise planning by calculating exactly how many engineers are needed for each set of installations, which is the best route to the next location and which tools and stock items are required for that particular job. Using data, fewer journeys are needed, and the journeys that are made are shorter and more fuel efficient. 

This information allows these decisions to be made much more quickly and accurately, resulting in a smoother rollout of the programme, increased customer satisfaction and more successful smart meter installations taking place.

The government and the energy providers have a big job on their hands to hit their intended 2020 targets. Yet by adopting strategies that make use of historical data and trends on field engineer scheduling, dispatch and job success rates, coupled with forecasting analytics and mobile-based information access for engineers and customers, they will be making it a leaner and more enhanced experience for everyone involved. Once the roll out starts to gather pace and everyone can see how simple the process is and what the real benefits are, we should see more consumers and businesses get on board. This will result in a virtuous cycle where the positive benefits and the experience of installing smart meters are widely known and understood.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 

Marina Stedman is a Field Service Expert at ClickSoftware.
 

FURTHER INFORMATION
 

ClickSoftware, http://www.clicksoftware.com/

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Energy efficiency  •  Policy, investment and markets

 

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