Energy and Climate Change CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Gwyn Carwardine (SMR126)

I’m an independent IT contractor who has worked with one of the Big 6 utility companies since 2009 on their Smart Metering programme apart from 2011 when I worked for a period at DECC in Whitehall as a Technical Architect.

My experience at DECC quickly led me to believe that the Government is making an almighty cock up of this. I like the idea that it is an industry problem and therefore up to industry to come up with the solution—thus avoiding Government being held responsible for the solution when it goes wrong—however first Ofgem and then DECC failed to facilitate industry actually producing a solution instead allowing industry working groups to naval gaze for two years and return empty handed—twice.

The competitive tendering for the WAN is a flawed idea. They see it as having to be competitive and retendered at certain intervals. Unfortunately the competing organisations, in the main, have entirely different technology at the heart of their communication. 3G (eg Vodafone) vs Long Range Radio (Arqiva) vs PLC (National Grid). The cost target for the WAN was approximately £5 per home per year. Over a 10 year contract that would be 5 x 10 x 30m homes = £1.5 billion. To then switch to another supplier (technology) would require a new communications hub in each home at an approximate cost of £30 for the new hub and £50 for the site visit. So an upgrade cost of £2.4 billion to switch—more than the cost of running it for the 10 years! And you’d have to start rolling out the comms hubs for the next contract now otherwise you’ll never get them fitted in time! Suggesting a parallel running—can’t switch suppliers over. I did speak to the lady responsible for the procurement project. She agreed it “wasn’t ideal” but said that it had to be competitive and there was no other way. So let’s do it wrong? And get stuck with a supplier because of the cost of change later?

The Government also appointed a CTO to whom I reported—Dan Simkins—formerly CTO of First Utility and at the time of employment with DECC still a very significant shareholder. Curious conflict of interest ignored—in the time I worked with him I thought he made some very strange decisions and I did wonder quite what his agenda was. One thing he did say several times was “whatever the solution is, it won’t be what British Gas are doing”. I agreed but I suspect not for the same reasons.

I left after three months—it was never clear what I was doing during my time there but I was grateful for the insight into the impending disaster.

A former colleague ended up employed at DECC nine months after I left. He too has now left, he claims he was “ethnically cleansed”. It had already been reported by another former colleague who was at DECC as an independent contractor that in every meeting he was getting attacked from every side—basically the programme is full of consultancies and it has become a battle ground with each trying to get more of their own in. Hence the ethnic cleansing of the independents.

During my time there I noticed it was full of consultants: PA Consulting, Deloitte and Ernst and Young brought in to run the Project Office. An interesting choice. Was there no-one within the civil service capable of performing the PMO function? Worse still, in my entire time there I never actually saw a plan so not quite sure what value they were adding for their not inconsiderable cost.

For a highly technical programme I was surprised to find myself one of only four or five people who had any technical experience and ability. Mostly I got the impression it was about looking the part and saying the right things. I like to get things done so it didn’t suit me at all.

For me it became clear what the technical solution should be: Powerline comms (PLC) for the WAN and also for the HAN. It is after all an electrical problem—we cannot store electricity and we will look to control devices remotely in the future with the Smart Grid. Electrical devices already have copper going to them so it makes sense to use this. Gas and water meters ideally should be catered for but the focus is on the electrical appliances.

Industry were busy going down the route of Zigbee wireless for the HAN communication when I was there. Why? Because wireless is what they had experience of and that’s what they’d been trialling. It’s easy and it talks to Gas meters which had been a large part of the focus up to that point. Unfortunately wireless is unreliable with poor range—especially the 2.4GHz Zigbee devices—2.4GHz being well absorbed by water molecules (and therefore the frequency chosen for microwave ovens). As an example: DECT phones operating at 1.9GHz have a lot more in-home range than Wi-Fi operating at 2.4GHz

For the WAN, industry experience had been with 2G and 3G GSM services. Utterly useless for a wide scale rollout (sit under the stairs with your mobile phone—reception not great!) but convenient for low volume trials where you can cherry pick customers in good reception areas and requires no build-out cost.

For a WAN based on PLC each substation would have to be upgraded—a large cost which could not be recovered in 10 years of contracted operation, however to my mind the best technology should be selected first and then worry about how to make it competitive or to manage the costs.

I’ve lost touch with the DECC project in the last few months.

June 2013

Prepared 26th July 2013