For most people in the UK, switching electricity and gas suppliers is an easy process – and you can save yourself a lot of money by comparing your options regularly and considering switching. I’d recommend Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club as a very easy-to use tool for doing this.
However, for a few of us, the options are much more limited. When I moved into my current flat in Edinburgh, I had to deal with a Dynamic Teleswitch Meter, a form of “Restricted Metering Infrastructure” – as Ofgem refer to it. Essentially, the meter has two circuits with three associated rates: one circuit behaves in a similar way to economy-7, being active all the time but switching between a day rate and a cheaper night rate at fixed times of day. The other circuit is switched on and off at the behest of a radio teleswitch signal, and only supplies my storage heaters. The switching times of this aren’t guaranteed – it can be anywhere within a certain window, but must be at least a certain number of hours per night.
I suspect this form of metering was introduced before the electricity market was changed such that it was possible to change suppliers and so this wasn’t a concern. Technologically, the benefits are apparent: the grid have some flexibility over when they provide power for storage heaters, and this can be used for load balancing. The consumer is rewarded by a slightly lower rate for heat units vs night time electricity. For example, my current tariff is:
|Rate||Approx usage/yr||Approx cost/yr|
|Standing charge||22.57p||365 days||£82.38|
The “approx usage” I’ve given is based on my usage over the last 12 months. I’m not sure if this is high or low. Scottish power tell me I’m a high user, and MSE would have estimated my usage at about 1/2 of what it is. But also I live alone in a 1-bed flat which visitors complain is cold in winter, and I think I’m quite frugal with electricity – running washing overnight when I can and avoiding heating water on daytime electricity. So who knows. Anyway, this table illustrates the overarching problem with these meters: the tariffs available are uncompetitive. When I’ve tried to switch before, scottish power have told me that there are no alternative tariffs available from them. Other suppliers have said they’re unable to take on my supply, or are only able to offer me a single rate: to which I said no thanks, because running storage heaters on single rate electricity would be stupid, surely? To see just how bad a deal I’m getting, let’s imagine I had an economy 7 meter and all of my heating usage was on night rate instead, as is typical for storage heater installations. This is Vari-Fair by Bulb — the best deal I found from MSE’s comparison:
|Unit rate||Estimated usage/yr||Estimated cost/yr|
So I’m paying around £200 extra per year because of this meter, compared to if I had economy 7. In light of this, I decided it would be worth trying to get the meter replaced, even if I had to incur some of the cost myself. I contacted Scottish Power and asked them whether I could change my meter (with my landlord’s permission) to an economy 7 one. I was repeatedly told that they’d be happy to change my meter, but only if I removed my storage heaters – they insisted that storage heaters could not be used with economy 7. Clearly this is an outright lie – the very point of economy 7 tariffs is to work with storage heaters. I asked them what other options I had for heating my home. I expected them to insist that I needed to use panel heaters, but instead they made the baffling claim that no form of electric heating could be used with an economy 7 meter, and so I’d need to remove electric heaters entirely. Eventually, when I agreed that they could disconnect my storage heaters (with the intention of getting an electrician to reconnect them with a timer afterwards), they told me they’d phone me within a few weeks to arrange replacing my meter. This was over a year ago and I’ve never heard back.
I was pretty angry about this, so I did some digging to find out more about these meters. I found a couple of reports commissioned by Ofgem: The state of the market for customers with dynamically teleswitched meters and Understanding the consumer experience of Dynamically Teleswitched (DTS) meters and tarrifs. These reports come across as quite damning of DTS meters, significantly reflecting my experience. In particular they find:
- DTS customers often don’t understand how their meter works
- Customers often didn’t choose to have their meter installed
- Customers who had tried to switch tariffs had often given up in frustration
- Tariffs are uncompetitive
As well as this, they found that DTS users are typically elderly, less affluent and less educated. This is worrying from a fuel poverty perspective – in that those who are more likely to struggle with fuel costs are also more likely to be taken advantage of through these tariffs. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of them are renting too, so need for landlord’s permission is another barrier to escaping these meters. The latter report is dated 2014, and I thought it seemed strange that six years later I was still suffering the same frustrating experience, so I contacted Ofgem to ask what they’ve been doing for DTS customers since then. They pointed me to a piece of legislation: Energy Market Investigation (Restricted Meters) Order 2016. This requires that electricity suppliers (with the exception of small suppliers serving fewer than 50k households) offer single-rate tariffs to customers with restricted meters, at no extra cost. This is far from perfect, as a single-rate supply is unlikely to be cost effective for running storage heaters and water heaters, but it’s a start. I was curious, so looked in to just how bad it would be to run my home on single rate electricity. Searching for single rate tariffs with an annual usage of 5320kWh, I found that the best deal was available was Symbio Energy’s “Low, Fair and Green 2020 Variable v7”:
|Unit rate||Estimated usage/yr||Estimated cost/yr|
|Standing charge||24.5p/day||365 days||£89.43|
Amazingly, it seems like it would still be cheaper to accept a single rate rather than stick with Scottish Power! And that’s even with about 75% of my electricity usage at night, which is well above the national average. If my daytime electricity usage was higher, my current tariff would be even less competitive. However, Symbio are a small supplier and might not be required to take on my restricted meter (if they have fewer than 50k customers). Even still, there are plenty of single-rate tariffs available from big-name suppliers which would cost <£800 a year, so still a small saving compared with my current situation. And like all of the other tariffs I’ve compared here, some of them have no exit charges.
I’m now trying to switch to a single rate tariff. I’m not expecting it to be easy but I’ll see how it goes. When I’ve tried to switch before I’ve run into problems with dual MPANs — so this time I’ve made extra sure that I’ve made the new supplier aware of that. I hope that the situation improves for consumers with DTS meters. Especially with smart meters being rolled out, this could be a good opportunity to allow such customers more flexibility. While I’ m not particularly familiar with SMETS2 meters, my understanding is that they have multiple switched outputs and so could be programmed remotely to switch between DTS, single rate or economy 7 tariffs. I hope that Ofgem will consider taking advantage of this and pushing further legislation to allow us this flexibility and protect us from exploitation. Because what is happening now feels like exploitation of a captive market by Scottish Power, and a cynical attempt too hold on to these customers. The “state of the market” report by Ofgem sugests that 551k homes have DTS meters UK-wide, including 91k in the south of Scotland. We’re constantly reminded of the need to compare energy suppliers in adverts by price comparison sites. But half a million homes don’t have this option. Hopefully there are brighter (and warmer!) days ahead.