Chris Wood, chief executive, Develop Training Limited Skills, Smart metering, Opinion

The smart meter rollout is placing extra demands on energy companies and their supply chain in terms of training staff. Chris Wood explains.

Smart meters are an integral part of the UK’s plans to create a greener, safer and more reliable energy network, but the rollout programme is placing severe demands on the energy firms and their supply chain.

The government originally required suppliers to install smart meters in the homes of all domestic customers and small businesses by the end of 2020, and handed out some hefty fines to suppliers who failed to meet interim targets. Even though it has back-pedalled since then, we still expect to see a spike in demand for trained installers through 2018 and beyond.

Smart meter installers are responsible for the installation, exchange, commission, maintenance and eventual decommissioning of smart meter systems. With tens of millions of homes YET to have smart meters installed, many more installers are required nationwide. In most cases, even experienced engineers require upskilling to carry out smart meter installations.

To meet that demand, there will need to be a significant investment in training more people to install smart meters.

The current skills shortage is related to wider issues in the utility sector, including an ageing workforce and a reluctance of young people to seek careers in those industries. The situation with smart metering was exacerbated by the introduction of updated Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specifications (SMETs2), which has led to a need for further training and the replacement of some meters that had already been installed.

Last year, we published a white paper on the issue. It concluded that fast, effective and accredited training programmes and initiatives are vital if suppliers are to boost installer numbers to meet their obligations and avoid penalties. The report ‘Smart Meters: training to meet the challenge of the UK rollout’, which is free to download from our website, explores the issues relating to the UK smart meter rollout and the role training must play in helping to address them.

The shortage of suitably trained engineers is by far the biggest challenge facing an industry under pressure to meet the smart meter target. Research has shown that almost one in five domestic customers who arranged for a smart meter to be installed in their home experienced long delays because there were too few engineers available to carry out the work.

The scale of the problem is dramatically demonstrated by the fact that in order to meet the original deadline, the rate of installations would have to increase at least five-fold to more than one million per month.

Heavy penalties have already been issued to suppliers who have failed to meet their smart metering targets for non-domestic customers. In 2014, for example, British Gas was fined £4.5 million for failing to meet its target of installing 28,000 smart gas meters and 15,000 smart electric meters. E.ON has also been fined £7 million for installing only 13,000 of a targeted 20,000 smart meters for its business customers.

Traditionally engineers have been trained in either gas or electricity installation. The focus has now changed to dual-fuel installation capabilities. Future engineers will obviously need the training and qualifications to perform dual-fuel installations, but they will also need customer service skills to help customers understand their smart metering systems.

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