Powering Towards the Smart Meter targets of 2024
The UK energy regulator Ofgem is ramping up the pressure on suppliers to meet the target of offering every home and small business a smart meter by the end of 2024. The Government has already pushed back the original target of 2020 but Utility companies are still struggling because the roll-out is anything but simple. Nick Miller, Panasonic TOUGHBOOK’s Utilities industry specialist looks at how the right choice in mobile computing can help ease the burden and the boost productivity of supplier field engineers.
The replacement of traditional gas and electricity meters with smart meters is an essential national energy infrastructure upgrade that will help make our energy system cheaper, more efficient and reliable. The Government, via its energy regulator Ofgem, is committed to ensuring that every home and small business in the country is offered a smart meter by the end of 2020. However, this target has already been pushed back once (in September 2019) from an original target of the end of 2020. Ongoing technical issues with the early generation of smart meters meant that many customers were unable to switch suppliers conveniently without changing their smart meter.
There may have been initial challenges with the technology, and some ongoing issues, but the next generation of gas and electricity meters offer a range of intelligent functions. For example, they can tell customers how much energy they are using in pounds and pence through an In-Home Display (IHD). This information will help customers manage their energy use, save money and reduce emissions. Smart meters also communicate directly with energy suppliers, meaning customers will get accurate bills.
A Great Idea but Challenging
Sounds like a great idea but the successful delivery of smart metering benefits depends upon a coordinated effort from a wide range of organisations and there are many challenges. Contacting and convincing customers of the benefits of installing a smart meter, third party contracts and the issue of transitioning from first generation smart meters to second generation devices (SMETS1 meters to SMETS2) have all been cited as reasons for missing milestones. These challenges are being faced against a back-drop of energy price capping, forcing the energy companies to invest at a time when there are already increasing financial pressures.
Industry commentators and consumer champions are also concerned that even the latest pushed-back targets might be missed. In recent years Ofgem has become frustrated at the pace of the roll-out, even fining some suppliers for their inability to hit targets. SSE Energy was fined £700,000 after it missed its smart meter targets in 2018.
But the latest quarterly figures show that, although more slowly than many would like, progress is being made. Smart meter installs are now on the rise. As of June 2019 there were 14.9 million smart and advanced meters operating in homes and businesses across Great Britain – an increase of 4.2% from the previous quarter. Over 1m domestic smart meters were installed in homes in the second quarter of 2019.
But as the demand rises and the number of installs continues to ramp-up as the target date draws closer, the energy suppliers and, in particular, their field engineers, are under increasing pressure to improve productivity. And choosing the right mobile computing device to assist those field engineers has a massive impact on productivity. These devices have become the single most important tool for field engineers from downloading their daily tasks, using maps to find locations, commissioning and reading meters through to photographing, reporting and regular office application communications. Having the right device can be the difference, for example, between five and eight completed smart meter installs a day.
Selecting the Right Device
So, what should mobile computing device buyers be looking out for when selecting their devices for the field engineers? Here are our top five tips for shortlisting:
- Protection – make sure your devices are rugged enough to stand up to the harsh environment of working in the field. As there is no standard definition for the term ‘Rugged PC’. It can mean something very different from vendor to vendor. For example, rugged protection is not just about drop specification and Ingress Protection. Examine manufacturers’ claims in detail.
- Connectivity – Ensuring mobile devices can connect to key systems is also critical for productivity when in the field. With smart meters being installed across the country, many of the areas are remote and connectivity can be poor. Connectivity is one of the core TOUGHBOOK technologies, but we also partner with NetMotion to ensure connection persistence and effectiveness. NetMotion provides faster and more reliable connectivity for mobile computing device users as well as better security and visibility for IT administrators.
- I can see clearly now…Displays - Most vendors claim outdoor visibility, but a professional display is not just about being outdoor readable and touch capable. Touchscreens need to be able to accept input in high and low temperatures, be used with a capacitive or digitizer pen, with gloves and often in the rain. An anti-reflective layer also provides the best visibility even under direct sunlight.
- Left feeling run down…Batteries - High capacity battery options and replaceable batteries lead to lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and better Return on Investment (ROI). Look for devices that have hot-swap exchangeable batteries, so you can run multi-shift duties with the lowest downtime.
- Accessories can make a difference - It’s not just a purpose-built handheld device that makes a difference to the mobile workforce, the right accessories can be the difference to increasing productivity or causing frustration. Look for devices with their own ecosystem of accessories and peripherals – from hand and shoulder straps to chargers, additional batteries, stylus pens for accurate signature capture, power adaptors and docks. And look for those suppliers that build backward compatibility into next generation products to ensure that power packs, docks and accessories can be reused from one generation of device to the next.
- No hanging around…Turn Around time - Device downtime cuts productivity and can also have an impact on reputation, customers, and employee morale. A rapid replacement 48-hour repair time is the best available in the rugged market. Ask your supplier how quickly they can deliver a like-for-like replacement device; or indeed what their net device repair time is?