The UK's ambitious rollout of smart meters to every household and business in the country has been delayed by one year, after ministers decided more time was needed to deliver the data and communications network that will underpin the technology.
The national deployment had been scheduled to start in late 2014 with a target to complete the rollout by the end of 2019. However, energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey on Friday released a statement confirming that the project would be delayed by one year, with the deployment now slated to start in 2015 and completion scheduled for late 2020.
Davey said the "consistent message" from the energy industry and the technology companies currently vying to secure the contract to run the national Data and Communications Company (DCC), which will provide the infrastructure that will allow smart meters to transmit data, was that "more time was needed if the mass rollout was to get off to the best possible start and ensure a quality experience for consumers".
"Completing the national rollout will be an enormous logistical and technical challenge for the industry, involving visits to around 30 million homes and small businesses and installing over 50 million meters," he added. "To this end, and reflecting the extended period to build and test the systems required by industry, the government has decided to move the completion date for the mass rollout from end 2019 to end 2020 - although I expect the vast majority of smart meters to be in place against the original 2019 deadline."
The delay will raise fears that the DCC system and smart meter rollout could face difficulties similar to those experienced by a host of previous government IT contracts that have faced high profile delays and cost overruns.
But a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokeswoman today downplayed concerns about the potential for further delays, insisting the change to the timetable was the result of "numerous conversations" with the smart meter industry.
She also stressed that the deployment of smart meters would continue ahead of the full national rollout in 2015. "There's nothing stopping energy suppliers installing smart meters for customers now and many of them are," she said. "These smart meters will be compatible with the new communications infrastructure when it is deployed."
Angela Knight, chief executive of trade association Energy UK, welcomed the move to delay the rollout, hailing it as a "prudent decision" that will give companies the time they need to "prepare carefully" for the ambitious project.
"The installation of over 50 million meters in 30 million homes and small businesses across the country is a complex task which must be fulfilled with great care to ensure consumers receive the best possible benefits," she said. "Allocating extra time to the programme will mean that it can be completed in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, and to greater effect."
Smart meters and related smart grid technologies are widely regarded as a critical component of the government's climate change and energy efficiency strategies.
Studies have shown that providing households and business with real time information on the energy they use encourages energy-saving measures, while connecting smart meters to energy companies' billing systems guarantees more accurate bills. The technology is also expected to enable the development of smart grids and smart appliances, whereby households can save energy by automatically turning off appliances that are not needed during periods of peak power demand.
However, debates are continuing to rage about the most effective and secure means of linking smart meters to centralised databases, while concerns have also been voiced about the privacy implications of the emerging technology.
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