|Energy minister Charles Hendry (left) at the centre|
As you may all know by now, the foundation stage of the nationwide smart meter rollout has begun, and will continue until 2014 when the mass rollout stage begins. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has stipulated that energy suppliers will be required to buy and install the smart meters for their customers. This obligation has led to E.ON developing their Smart Metering Centre of Excellence at Wyvern House, Nottingham, and I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of the centre on 9th May, accompanying Charles Hendry, the Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change.
Upon arriving at the centre, the managers and directors involved with the smart meter programme presented us with the overall framework for the rollout, covering the number of planned smart meter installations, to customer eligibility for the programme. The smart meters are free to E.ON customers on combined electricity and gas tariffs, however, the availability of trained personnel to fit the meters has restricted the foundation rollout to the East Midlands and North West regions of England. At the end of the trial period, E.ON aim to have 1 million smart meters fitted into customers’ homes with approximately 7 million more installations between 2014 and 2019.
The purpose of the centre is to create a dedicated hub from which E.ON’s customer orientated smart meter operations can be run from. The centre is currently home to a 100 strong customer service team (with planned increases to this), providing specialist assistance and advice to help customers through the installation process. At the heart of the centre is the idea of ‘positive consumer engagement’, which has been identified as a vital component in the overall delivery of smart meters. It was encouraging to hear the extent to which this had been embraced, as we were told that all of the staff at the centre either already have smart meters fitted at their homes, or are currently awaiting installation.
Once the delivery framework had been outlined, I was given the opportunity to speak to with a member of the customer service team about their experiences, and listen to an incoming customer call. E.ON currently sends letters and information packs to eligible customers inviting them to have the smart meter installed, with the customers then able to arrange the installation by making a phone call to the centre. This is also an opportunity for customers to ask further questions, however, in the majority of cases this is straight forward and relates the practicalities of the installation. Again, positive customer engagement plays a pivotal role with the smart meter fitters not leaving until the customer is satisfied with the installation and using the accompanying handheld device.
In terms of consumer insight, the dominant factors in customers wanting the smart meters are the combined attractions of more accurate bills and not having to have their meter read. The ability to make informed decisions using the handheld device also has an appeal, but not to the same extent. The most striking finding for me was how positively received the smart meters were by E.ON’s customers. Furthermore, before arriving at the centre, I had presumed that the initial customers requesting the smart meters would predominantly be ‘younger’ and technology savvy. I had also anticipated a flurry of queries relating to the data that the energy suppliers collect, and what happens to it. However, anecdotal evidence from the customer service team suggests that these presumptions are unfounded. This suggests that the additional benefits of the meters, and the way E.ON is communicating these to their customers, are universally welcomed.
The foundation stage has also identified some technical problems that will have to been resolved before the mass rollout. With the smart meter using a mobile phone network to transmit the data, there are potential problems for homes and buildings located in areas with a poor signal, as well those with their meters situated in basements. In addition, there are problems with smart meter installation in buildings (typically flats) that share a meter.
There is no doubting the magnitude of the task involved in fulfilling the government’s vision of installing a smart meter in every home in Great Britain, speeding up a process that would typically take more than 20 years. This gives you an idea of the level of coordination and commitment that is required by the energy suppliers in order to fulfil their obligations. With over 900 installations completed at the time of our visit, and the centre’s activity on the increase, E.ON is well on their way towards meeting its targets, with their willingness to focus on customer engagement appearing to pay dividends. This is only one of the ‘Big 6’ energy suppliers, however, and there is still the rest of the foundation period and the mass rollout to contend with, but this programme has demonstrated a clear pathway for a smooth transition to smart meters.