Smart Meter pioneer on the past, present and future of Smart Energy

We talk to Pilgrim Beart, cofounder and CEO of DevicePilot

Tell me a bit about your background?

As a computer engineer, I’ve worked in the tech industry for over 30 years in the UK and Silicon Valley and having co-founded five companies I suppose I now have to accept the dubious badge of “serial entrepreneur”. My start-ups include antenova – which has sold billions of multiband smartphone antennas – and AlertMe which was eventually bought by British Gas as the basis for its HiveTM platform, and that gave me some early experience in the Smart Meter space.

What impact would you say Smart Meters have had on the energy market thus far?

In the decade since the start of UK Smart Meter rollout, they have been somewhat underwhelming. In general, they have been limited to streamlining the billing process for utilities and allowing customers to keep track of their energy consumption, which doesn’t exactly amount to a revolution. With around 10 million Smart Meters now installed, we are yet to see them really deliver on their potential, largely due to factors out of their control.

What has been holding them back?

Several challenges have held Smart Meters back. In the early days of SMETS1, there was no centralised mechanism for managing meters, so when the householder changed their supplier, the meter often reverted to “dumb” mode. A second round of development gave us SMETS2, which solved that problem with the DCC as the central clearing-house for meter communications.

Smart Meters were also perhaps a little before their time. A lot of their potential is as an enabler for other Smart Energy technologies, particularly in the context of the shift to renewables, but these other technologies have taken a while to arrive, leaving Smart Meters still waiting to deliver their promise.

Why are Smart Meters coming into their own now?

Finally, we are starting to see an abundance of other Smart Energy technologies infiltrate the home en masse. Technologies like PV generation and connected heating (Hive, Nest etc.) are mainstream, and electric vehicle charging, heat pumps and battery energy storage are not far from becoming everyday items that ordinary consumers will discuss down the pub (once COVID ends!), and this will only accelerate as the country pushes on towards net zero.

This shift is also causing the wholesale price of electricity to fluctuate much more, as the grid struggles to balance varying generation with varying demand. This – along with some very big consumption peaks driven by electric car charging and heating – is driving the arrival of the domestic Agile tariff, where pricing changes half-hourly, over a huge range from 5p-30p/unit and can even sometimes go negative when there is oversupply.

This all creates an ecosystem where Smart Meters are finally starting to prove their worth, helping to regulate energy consumption, reducing the cost of energy for many customers and enabling the grid to become greener as renewable energy can now be managed in a much more dynamic way. Smart Meters are the key to joining all of these previously siloed dots together, bringing dynamic pricing signals into the home, along with fiscal accountability.

What does the future hold for Smart Maters?

As we move towards a grid that will increasingly – and one day wholly – rely on renewable energy, Smart Meters will play a larger and larger role in managing our energy. The sun shines when it shines, and the wind blows when it blows – we can’t control that. However, Smart Meters allow a lot more dynamism in the grid. As an example, if the wind is blowing at an off-peak time – such as the middle of the night – and there is an abundance of cheaper energy generated, a Smart Meter might tell your EV charger to start charging your car or tell your boiler to start heating hot water to be used later on. This not only will mean cheaper energy for consumers but solve the problem of unpredictable energy generation for utilities.

What hurdles will they experience along the way?

Smart Meters have overcome many hurdles to get to the point where they are today, but a major one still remains – the quality of service they are able to deliver. I have seen this first-hand. Once service providers have rolled out a large number of devices, it becomes difficult to keep track of these devices and their state. Before this point, it might be possible to use a mixture of brainpower and spreadsheets to log faults and complaints, but the sheer number becomes rapidly overwhelming, to the point where you can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Questions around whether a provider’s Smart Meters are actually delivering the promised results become harder and harder to answer, and providers have very little idea what is happening on their devices.

While the Smart Meter was just a way to save the cost of a “man in a van” to read them, these problems were merely an irritation. But now that the whole ecosystem is changing, Smart Meters are becoming the lynchpin of Smart Home Energy, and this kind of poor performance just isn’t acceptable anymore.

The result, from a customer perspective, is meters that fail soon after installation, or have unreliable connections, or don’t update their tariffs properly, or a whole list of problems. This leaves customers irritated as their Smart Meters aren’t that Smart, but the provider won’t know this until the customer has complained, but which stage it is too late to provide a great service.

How can this problem be solved?

Service Management technology holds the key. It offers a ‘single pane of glass’ view of a provider’s entire fleet of devices, and enables automated processes to identify and resolve problems, enabling a much more proactive stance towards customer service, rather than constantly having to respond to angry complaints.

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