James Ashton: Smart-meter plans aren't looking so bright

Outlook The companies queuing up for a slice of work from the Government's grand plan to put a smart energy meter in every home have been waiting for a verdict longer than most homeowners used to have to hang around for the meter reader to knock on their door.

True, there is much to be gained if consumers already struggling with hefty gas and electricity price rises can use the new technology to reduce their power consumption and therefore bills.

But, just like the decision on building the next generation of nuclear power stations, the contract awards made yesterday highlight that this is a scheme already running significantly behind schedule.

Some utilities have grown tired of waiting. Centrica and others are already installing their own smart meters for customers, as a recent advertising campaign points out. If some of the Big Six energy suppliers are putting in the investment themselves, doesn't a government-mandated programme begin to look redundant?

Cash-strapped Telefonica, owner of the O2 mobile network, will be glad of the extra income from providing the technology that will allow remote meter reading. But the upfront cost to the taxpayer is huge, and meters in every home won't be operational until 2019 at the earliest.

The government admitted recently it didn't have enough expertise in the corridors of Whitehall to manage effectively large-scale infrastructure projects such as this. I do hope it can find some, or else this programme risks becoming as costly and unnecessary as the shambolic £12bn IT upgrade of the NHS.

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