Export meters cause confusion among UK customers

According to research conducted by renewable energy website YouGen, there’s a lot of confusion amongst UK residents about the export of solar electricity to the national grid. Reportedly, customers who have installed solar panels are unsure about how the export payments work, and so-called help lines are just making matters worse.

“The research was sparked off by my own experience,” says YouGen founder Cathy Debenham. “When I got my solar panels, my installer put in two identical meters. One to record total generation and one to record electricity exported.

“While my energy company pays the generation part of the feed-in tariff (at 43.3p per kilowatt hour) based on this meter, it won’t pay the much lower export tariff (3.1p per kWh) on an identical meter. Unless I get a special meter with an MPAN number installed, I must accept a payment on a ‘deemed’ amount of half of what I generate. In practice, I export nearer two thirds of what I generate.

“Getting a meter with an MPAN number installed is expensive (varying between £50 and £400 depending on which company you speak to) and so, for most domestic installations it makes sense to stick with the deemed export. However, I’m still curious as to why the regulations are much lighter for the larger payment than they are for the small one (c. £780 and £33 respectively in my case). I understand what the rules are, but so far no one has given me a sensible explanation of why they are that way.”

In order to get to the bottom of this issue, a YouGen mystery shopper decided to call a selection of energy companies, rating them on the on ease of finding information about their feed-in tariff supply service, and how helpful they were when contacted.

An Ofgem spokeswoman was able to confirm that a meter used for feed-in tariff payments should be installed by the feed-in tariff supplier if it is to meet the balancing and settlement code requirement, and that it is your supplier’s asset and theirs to maintain.

However, all the energy companies called by the YouGen mystery shopper urged customers to go with the 50% deemed export option, saying that it was not worth installing an export meter. But their explanations didn't help understand why.

Ecotricity was the only company that said it will install an export meter if a customer requests it. It quoted a cost of £50 (for a Devon postcode), with no ongoing maintenance costs. On the other hand, Scottish Power simply stated that it does not offer export meters on systems under 50kWp.

Southern Electric said it will install a smart meter for existing customers, free of charge. However, for new customers, it recommended talking to your installer. This was reiterated by most of the installers questioned during the exercise, despite the fact that the majority of the research found that asking your installer about putting in an export meter is not likely to help as they’re likely to be as confused about it all as you are.

EDF is clearly not keen on installing export meters, as it quoted a cost of £400+ on top of a "considerable amount of maintenance charge" that would be incurred if one was installed.

Npower responded similarly, saying that it does not install meters itself, but that a customer would be looking at a couple of hundred pounds to buy one. Again, the mystery shopper was referred to an installer.  

E.on also said that it doesn't install export meters on its own installations, and you guessed it, suggested that the customer should speak with the installer.

Because smart meters are due to be rolled out from early 2013, British Gas is also not offering export meters at present. This company also recommended speaking to your installer if you want an export meter now, saying they cost a couple of hundred pounds.

Good Energy told the Mystery Shopper that customers only need an export meter for an installation of 10kWp or more. When asked if they would provide a meter for a smaller installation it advised the YouGen caller to talk to an installer, who would not be likely to recommend it either.

“To avoid confusion, it might be simpler if the companies were more upfront with consumers,” said Cathy Debenham. “The cost-benefit analysis is very simple. The cost of the meter is more than the amount most people with small solar PV systems will get paid under the export tariff. That’s very easy to understand. But when you’re just told you don’t need a meter or that the deemed 50% would be more beneficial, then you’re left confused, and wondering why.”

Still puzzled? Yes, I am a bit too.