Exactly what does “Next” mean for E.on?

Bryan Manley-Green takes us on a ride through the E.on vagaries of living through an energy crisis with a less-than-smart meter
Photo Bryan Manley-Green

Some of us might remember the days when gas came from British Gas. Younger people might assume that electricity came from British Electricity. For some reason electricity (and water) was split on a regional basis. Here in the Midlands it came from the Midlands Electricity Board (the MEB). You could even buy electrical items from their shops on the high street whilst paying or querying your bill. Then came privatisation.

Many of the local electricity companies got a new name. How that helped lower our bills remains a mystery to this day. However, in those heady days of the 1980s at least we found out a capital letter wasn’t always necessary at the beginning of a name. npower was born, replacing the MEB. I feel quite pleased with myself. I’ve managed, with some difficulty, to get the computer to accept npower rather than changing it to Npower at the beginning of a sentence. Heaven only knows how much time and especially energy that has wasted over the years.

The npower story continues. Not convinced with starting its name with a lower case letter, it was sold to E.on, which for some reason had a full stop in the middle, once again sending spellcheckers into turmoil. Unlike others, I didn’t really see a problem with a German company buying the MEB. I suspect many of us hoped it would become more efficient.

Switching became the norm

Over the years, we all got used to switching our energy bills and chasing that elusive fixed deal, until the energy market went crazy a few months ago. At one stage, our energy came from Scotland (well, Scottish Power), but then it seemed that E.on were the cheapest after all, so switched back to what was basically the MEB. Being “dual fuel” meant we were now getting our gas from the old electricity board.

At least we saved a bit of paper as we now got our electricity and gas from the same supplier, and the likes of USwitch could somehow let us know who the cheapest supplier was.

I still can’t say I’ve ever understood exactly how privatisation saved us money. Surely someone had to pay for the people who constantly phoned and stood in the way when you did your shopping, trying to sell you electricity and gas. Not to mention USwitch and its many competitors who have to earn a living. 

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The first generation (not so) smart meter arrives

While we were with E.on all those years ago, we were offered a “smart” meter. As I suppose I’m technically curious (rather than savvy) I agreed, and a man duly came to fit the new device telling us that meter readings would be a thing of the past. He told me that no-one needed to visit the property and the readings would be done magically by the new contraption.

Bearing this in mind, when the fitter told me never to mention the last digit for the gas reading, I didn’t take much notice. But somehow E.on still wanted me to submit meter readings from the smart meter inside the house. Anyway, I forgot about the not having to give the last number, and we got a very nasty surprise when we opened our next gas bill. It’s still a mystery why I had to give a meter reading when we were with E.on all of those years ago when the meter was supposed to be smart.

Wasn’t the point that a smart meter was supposed to be read by the company directly? Shouldn’t it display the reading that the energy company actually wanted to produce a correct bill? Moreover, wasn’t the whole point of privatisation so we could switch suppliers to get cheaper energy? It’s a shame no-one told that to the manufacturers of the first smart meters as these can’t always switch to new companies, it seems.

The years passed and we changed energy providers a few times, most recently using Ovo for the past four years. From memory all of the companies we used in the interim were able to read our smart meter remotely, no fussing with the last zero for the gas and we simply used the smart meter to monitor our energy use.

Luckily, our fixed rate came to an end just before prices went out of control and Sainsbury’s Energy seemed the best value, especially as we got some extra Nectar Points for switching.

We learned that Sainsbury’s Energy doesn’t actually exist as an energy company. It’s actually E.on who provides the energy and to whom we pay our bill. Sainsbury’s just seem to give Nectar Points and charge a slightly different tariff from E.on.

Probably just as well as E.on are one of the “Big 6” suppliers and will hopefully ride out the current energy price crisis. Along with the Nectar Points, I also rather liked the fact that E.on became the first of the “Big Six” UK power companies to switch all of its British electricity customers entirely to renewable electricity.

Switching was straightforward. Ovo and I agreed on final figures which I got from our smart meter that you may remember E.on had fitted some years ago. It had been years (if not a decade) since I last had to give monthly readings. Switching to Sainsbury’s Energy effectively meant we were back getting our electricity (and gas) from the good old MEB.

Our first bill from Sainsbury’s arrived. For a few days in September (most of which were unseasonably warm), somehow our gas bill came in at £293.57. That would mean an annual gas bill of over £15,000, instead of the £600 or so we’d paid Ovo. I rang to query the bill and after thirty minutes, the man who answered said he’d get back to me the following week.

In the meantime, I posted about our plight on Facebook. A friend looked at the bill and said “you’re being charged in m3 (cubic metres) rather than kwh”. Once I’d done a calculation from cubic metres to kilowatt hours, it seemed the bill should have been just over twenty pounds, not nearly three hundred.

Eventually, the discrepancy did get sorted and luckily this all happened before the algorithms got involved and put our monthly charge up to what would have been over £1000 a month.

Shouldn’t a “smart meter” actually be smart?

Since leaving E.on the first time, every other company we’ve used has been able to access our smart meter and read it remotely and correctly. However, it seems that the company who fitted it is unable to do so. For the gas reading, the meter inside the house no longer provides the number they need. Not only do I now have to go outside to read the meter I hardly knew existed, I then need to press the number 9 and quickly note the first of a string of numbers, whilst doing a contortion (so I can see the meter properly).

This is necessary as I can’t give the reading on the smart meter indoors for the gas as they want it in cubic metres. What makes it even more farcical is once we give them the reading in cubic metres, they then convert it back into kilowatt hours which is what it says on the smart meter in the house in the first place!

The reason for all this upset? Doing a bit of digging it seems that E.on is no longer E.on. It’s now E.on Next. Apparently it had to decouple from its German owner due to Brexit. It has now become a UK only company and has lost some links to the data it needs due to the switchover. That means they can’t read first generation meters, (even though Ovo had no problems).

In all the years we’ve had the smart meter, we’ve never had to go outside to read a meter, but now we’re back with the company that fitted it in the first place, that’s what we have to do. And it’s a right kerfuffle as explained above. To be fair, Sainsbury’s Energy has offered to send someone round to read the meter for us. But doesn’t that defeat one of the main purposes of having a smart meter in the first place?

We’re now “on the list” for a newer smart meter. It’s been known for a long time that first generation meters can’t always cope when switching companies, but surely it ought to be able to be read by the company that first installed it. Ours certainly can’t cope with switching back to E.on, or E.on Next as we now have to call the company. Or perhaps it’s e.on next? Their logo doesn’t make it clear.

Let’s hope newer smart meter models will be better

I’m simply at a loss as to why the newly privatised companies couldn’t have concentrated on getting things to work, rather than playing with their names and disobeying grammar rules! Once again, how all this makes our energy bills more affordable is beyond me. We can only wonder what happened to the bright spark who caused all this inconvenience.

Just how many more unintended consequences has that wretched referendum caused to our daily lives? One thing’s for sure, the smart meter fiasco is set to cost us all a lot of money. Just what we don’t need at the moment.

Let’s just hope the newer models work properly, especially when changing supplier and are more future proof. There again, not even the new generation of smart meters can cope with hydrogen boilers, so we might all end up back at square one, and as many models run on a soon to be switched off 2G or 3G signal, they’ll need to be replaced anyway.

As for energy suppliers, who knows what will happen. The government now seems to be in charge of tariffs and after Bulb was put into special administration are we seeing the first steps towards renationalisation? As for changing suppliers, the new mantra of guru Martin Lewis is to do nothing during the crisis. Going forward we do have to ask if there’s now any point of having different companies. 

With so many energy companies biting the dust, who knows if this will all end up with a company called English Energy. And if that does happen, then how many of us might end up paying EE by mistake!

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