Valerie Cooper has always budgeted carefully in order to pay her utility bills on time. Now she faces cancelling a holiday to celebrate her husband’s 70th birthday after her supplier, Shell, turned her £1,450 credit into £666 arrears overnight. The cause was the botched installation of a smart meter which was supposed to save her money.
“An engineer came in October 2017 and by 8pm he was still having problems trying to get the new meter to pick signals up,” she says. “He took it out and put our old meter back in and returned next morning. The smart meter still didn’t work so he fitted another one – which already had a reading on it.”
Fearing that the inherited meter reading would affect her bills, Cooper informed Shell, which told her to photograph the screen and email it. She did so repeatedly and spent the ensuing months asking vainly for an updated bill. In the meantime, she continued to pay her usual monthly direct debit of £104 and was told that she was £1,450 in credit. Then, 18 months after the abortive installation, the updated bill arrived demanding £666. “I am retired and disabled, my husband is worried to death about it,” she says. “We can no way find that sort of money and I don’t believe we owe it, since they haven’t read the meter for nearly two years.”
Cooper is one of many householders who have found themselves paying a high price for the government’s £11bn smart meter rollout, which is supposed to send data automatically to suppliers and abolish the uncertainty of estimated readings. Some have had to foot the bill for repairs after technicians damaged their property. Others, like Cooper, have faced fantastical bills because their new meter failed to function. And hundreds have found that their meters stopped working when they switched supplier to cut costs.
Shell, while admitting that its mistakes caused Cooper’s spiralling debt, insist she is liable, although under rules issued by the regulator, Ofgem, companies can’t retrospectively charge customers for energy used more than 12 months ago.
It offered to reduce the debt by £300 as a goodwill gesture and spread the balance over an affordable repayment plan. “We’d like to apologise to Mrs Cooper for the stress caused by our customer service failures,” said the company, whose website promises that smart meters give back control to the customer. “After looking into her account we found that her meter exchange was initially not updated on our systems, which is the reason why her account was billed incorrectly.
“Clearly, we didn’t do a good enough job to promptly fix the issue, but we have registered her meter exchange on the system.”
Suzanne Godfrey has been left with disabled heating and hot water systems after EDF sent a technician to install a smart meter, and she has been told she is liable for repairs. “During installation they turned all the power off and then back on but couldn’t restore power to the underfloor heating or secondary hot water loop,” she says.
“They sent an electrician but he didn’t know how to restore the power. They refuse to send a specialist heating engineer and have questioned the quality and state of the equipment, which is only three years old and was working up to the moment EDF turned off the power.
“I’m stunned that a large company can request access to my home, carry out work that causes a problem and then walk away from it.”
EDF says that customers are sent warnings to turn off sensitive equipment, including boilers, before a smart meter installation – Godfrey has denied receiving this – and explained that it will not guarantee to refund the cost of a heating engineer as the system may have had an underlying fault.
Meanwhile, Samuel Crisp was left without heating or electricity through one winter’s night after having a smart meter installed by Ovo. It transpired that the meter had been accidentally set to a pay-as-you-go setting and, after running through the emergency balance, his supply was disconnected even though his online account was £300 in credit. Ovo awarded him £150 as a gesture of goodwill.
Critics claim that corners are being cut in the rush to meet official targets. In 2016, the government announced that it expected suppliers to have offered or installed smart meters to all customers by 2020, a target that’s proved unrealistic.
The initiative is in response to the European commission’s 2009 electricity directive, which envisaged smart technology being offered to 80% of homes across the EU by 2020. The UK opted for 100% coverage by the same date and handed responsibility to energy suppliers, rather than gas and electricity network operators, who have the workforce and infrastructure to install whole streets at a time, instead of home by home.
The National Audit Office has predicted that taxpayers will end up paying half a billion pounds more than expected for the project over years to come. Meanwhile, the government has revised the annual sum it reckons a smart meter will save each household down from £26 to £11, while the £270 cost of each installation is passed on through higher bills.
In the rush to meet deadlines and avoid fines, suppliers are still installing old first-generation meters which cease to transmit live readings if a customer switches suppliers, because not enough updated meters are available.
There’s also a shortage of properly trained technicians. Consumer group Which? estimates installations would have to triple to 30 a minute to fulfil the government target, although Ofgem insists that suppliers have adequate resources in place.
Martyn James of the complaints website Resolver says it has received hundreds of complaints of inept installers and botched jobs.
“Customers have complained of meters with holes drilled into them to fix to walls, damaging the mechanisms of the meter, long waits for missing parts and problems with displays that don’t work, wrong readings and random bills,” he says.
“In one case, an installer caused a gas leak and when a team came to replace the pipework they found it would have to run through an asbestos panel. They insisted the customer must pay a four-figure sum to have it removed by specialists before they would make good.”
Most suppliers limit their responsibilities in their terms and conditions. According to Ofgem, customers may be required to update hazardous connections and appliances before an installation can proceed – which, if the old meter has already been removed, can leave them with a large and unavoidable bill. If damage is caused by the installation, the supplier should make good, but the problem is proving negligence if the company denies responsibility.
Customers who feel they have been left unfairly out of pocket can take their case to the Energy Ombudsman, which received 86 complaints about substandard installations over the past 12 months. “In circumstances where the supplier is at fault for damage to a customer’s property, we would expect the supplier to compensate the customer,” it says.
Valerie Cooper has accepted Shell’s £300 offer, although she still disputes the accuracy of the bill. “I was going to fight it to the end but I can’t take the stress any more,” she says. “I’m going to pay the rest straight away to get rid of them and I will save up and take my husband away another time.”
Is it time to call ‘stop’ as the rollout rolls on?
Smart meters automate readings in order to to make energy use easier for householders to understand, and are considered a critical upgrade of the energy system, helping the UK’s electricity grid cope with an increasing but variable amount of wind and solar power.
Last year, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer fronted a PR campaign to encourage people to use the smart meters, visiting cities across the UK in the “Smart Energy” tour.
The devices could also reduce the need for costly upgrades to power grids, aid integration of electric cars into the energy system and open up a host of innovative tariffs with energy costs based on time of use.
While seen as an essential foundation for much of the UK’s energy future, their rollout has been fraught with problems in the attempt to reach the 2020 deadline of installing up to 53 million devices. There have been calls for one of Britain’s biggest national infrastructure projects to stop because of problems that have occurred after customers switch. Many meters have lost their smart functionality after people switched supplier – meaning consumers once again have to manually submit readings.