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Making smart meters voluntary makes the benefit case even more important

Tuesday 7th February 2012

Last week the Government confirmed that it would no longer be rolling out smart meter technology on a compulsory basis. Instead the new meters will be voluntary, with the Government now committing to designing methods for people to have a choice and be able to opt out.  Though it is undoubtedly right that people should have a choice on these matters, it’s a decision that will have long term implications on the UK’s ability to better manage and lower its energy use.

Many commentators have highlighted various concerns from consumer groups and MPs over smart meters - from privacy of data to worries about the potential health effects of electromagnetic radiation. Indeed, it has been suggested that this decision has been taken to avoid potentially time-consuming legal challenges that could hold up the roll out.

However, let’s not lose sight of some of the facts. The final specifications for smart meters have not yet been agreed. Issues such as privacy and data security have been discussed extensively and seriously, and will form an important part of the final specifications.

Of course the public concerns need to be taken seriously, and it is critical that these issues are addressed. But in a situation where these final guidelines are not agreed it seems somewhat needless to take the decision to make smart meters voluntary to head off potential criticism.

As I have often said, smart meters are as much about consumer engagement as technology or infrastructure. Without the right information or proper advice over the benefits these new meters can bring, I am not surprised that consumers will be wary of such a significant change. In light of recent criticisms and last week’s decision, clearly this engagement with consumers and influential stakeholders hasn’t been as effective as it needs to be.

But by making smart meters voluntary the issue of consumer engagement does not go away - in fact if the Government is serious about meeting its emissions targets and lowering energy demand, the need to engage with and educate consumers on why they should voluntarily opt for a smart meter is even more vital.

If smart meters are not compulsory then Government and energy suppliers are going to have to work even harder to persuade consumers of the benefits in order to drive take up and ensure that we can make the long term behavioural changes needed to reduce our energy consumption.

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