To appreciate this story, you need to know that back in 1998, Western Europe was in love with the idea of smart cards. France had led the way with “Chip & PIN”, offering real security for credit and debit cards, and no need to carry cash again. Smart technology was at the forefront of satellite television. Smart cards were the answer to everything, including prepayment electricity and gas metering. For prepayment electricity metering you could even have your “chip” on a key for convenience!
Naturally, PRI and Secure Meters had a different idea about utility metering (that’s why we are who we are). Despite all its limitations, having looked at the keypad metering available in South Africa, we had a firm belief that something better could be developed and offered to the UK and Irish markets and other parts of the world. The concept of Liberty was born and a few brave souls in PRI set about trying to break the strong bond between the people of the British Isles and their smart cards. Generally, the conversations were short and along the lines of “So instead of just sticking a card in, you want the consumer to punch in 20, 40 or even 60 digits? Don’t call us – we’ll call you!”
However, in Northern Ireland, things are and were a little bit different and the people there have always been less inclined to follow the herd. Even before the days of PAYG mobile telephones, the people of Northern Ireland were used to paying for things in advance. With natural gas supply in its infancy, many homes were still heated with either coal or oil which, at that time, would normally have been paid for in advance. The culture in Northern Ireland is one of debt avoidance, unlike most of Britain.
Northern Ireland Electricity [NIE] was working mostly with credit meters and for prepayment, they were using the old token meters from Landis & Gyr, affectionately known as “bus ticket” meters, because they used a ticket with a magnetic stripe. These meters were low on technology and big on limitations. The biggest drawback was that the token was directly allocated to an individual consumer, but would work in any meter. Imagine: you have forgotten to buy a token for your electricity meter, but you bump into a friend who has a spare one and he kindly gives it to you. As soon as you put the token into your meter, then two accounts are immediately out of sync. NIE needed to do something and the obvious choice was smart card meters. A gentleman called Robert Oliver was charged with the task of finding an alternative to the token meters and was looking at smart card meters. However, Robert was a very experienced man and was not convinced that the smart card technology would be the answer to all his problems, particularly those related to revenue protection, (Robert’s foresight saved NIE from the catastrophe that befell the British electricity industry in 2010-11).
Rather than simply following the herd, Robert commissioned an independent consultant to look at smart card technology, particularly from a utility metering perspective. He was not too surprised when the consultant’s report suggested that there were a number of limitations with the technology. Robert turned to the local metering engineer, now a great friend of many in Secure Meters – Jimmy Hollinger, and asked Jimmy if he knew of any other technology that might be of use. Jimmy informed Robert that a company called PRI were talking about a new idea involving keypad metering for PAYG and that he would arrange a meeting. A meeting was duly arranged and Jim Shields, who was at that time looking after the business for PRI in Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, spent time explaining the idea of “Liberty” to Robert. Robert listened intently, questioned Jim closely, challenged him with everything he had gleaned from his consultant’s report and distilled his thoughts. After a long period of discussion, review and reflection, Robert turned to Jim and said; “I think you might have something here, I’m interested, but I’m only interested with a small “i” at the moment”.
Many meetings followed, many differing agendas started appearing from various parts of NIE. Robert was from the Energy Supply division, which was run by a visionary called Alan Gaston, who immediately saw the business benefit that Liberty could bring to NIE. Alan Gaston challenged the PRI team to prove that Liberty would deliver all that was promised, and time and again his questions were satisfied, to the point that Alan decided to run a pilot project. Now all this was a bit unusual in NIE at that time. Normally, the Energy Supply business would identify a requirement and simply hand it over to the metering “experts” and let them get on with it. However here we had a situation where the Energy Supply people were telling the metering “experts” which technology to buy – this had never happened before and led to some tensions at the time, but we could fill another short story on that alone, so better to move on.
It was decided that Liberty would be a good debt recovery tool and that a pilot project should be run to establish if the technology would work for NIE, prior to deployment to consumers in debt. Normally a pilot project is a very good idea as an evaluation tool and this case was no different. Except that establishing if this technology would work or not, would be limited by the fact that we hadn’t built a meter yet, far less worked out what to do with vending software or the interfaces. A few sleepless nights ensued! After the initial blind panic and feeling of being at the top of a roller-coaster that finished on the edge of a cliff, Kaushik Ghosh, Phill Kettless and Neeraj Punmiya, ably supported by Dave Nessling and too many more people to mention, set about creating Liberty. A pilot project would be run in Finaghy and Dunmurray, right at the doorstep of the NIE offices. There was one major problem and that was the lack of meters or tooling for meters. Ray Shaw begged some old Schlumberger key meters from the skip at the Meter Test Station in Bexley Heath (then London Electric – now EdF Energy). These were stripped of all but the terminal blocks. Two-hundred Kittiwake meters were made with a very primitive plastic frontage and “TV Controller” inspired Freedom units were born. Two-hundred meters were installed and the vending was serviced from a laptop computer and freestanding printer in the local petrol filling station (Crichton’s for those of you who are racking your brains). It would be fair to say that, to everyone’s relief, the Liberty sets worked, the vending system worked very well indeed, NIE Energy Supply was happy, the consumers were delighted and the PRI/Secure team were relieved (to say the least).
The decision was taken to move to stage two which would involve 20,000 “proper” Liberty metering sets, as we see them today, supported by an online vending system. Many late nights followed, the NIE team visited Udaipur, Jim Shields and Phill Kettless became familiar sights in Belfast and Kaushik Ghosh wore out several aircraft flying back and forth. The pressure to deliver was intense, the work rate was high and everyone felt part of something good. Friendships grew that would last for many years with great people like Graeme Hunter, Clifford Morrison, Jimmy Hollinger and Stephen McCully, all of whom were there at the very beginning and still work with Liberty 12 years on. As the 20,000 meters were being installed, it became clear that the householders liked Liberty – A LOT! Instead of seeing Liberty as a debt recovery tool, NIE Energy Supply began to look at Liberty as a cash-flow improvement tool. Before anyone could say Jack Robinson, there was a waiting list for Liberty meters, mostly from people who did not have debt at all. The plan for 20,000 meters became 80,000 meters, because that was roughly the number of prepayment consumers in Northern Ireland at that time; but 80,000 soon became 100,000, and 100,000 is now heading for 400,000 consumers, with more people in Northern Ireland paying for their electricity via Liberty than they do using Direct Debit. The people of Northern Ireland love the idea of the billing and energy management information being available 24/7 on their Freedom unit, and NIE energy love getting cash upfront – everyone is happy, the best outcome possible.
Stephen McCully, a young engineer in the early days of the Liberty project is now the Managing Director of Power NI, the new name for NIE Energy Supply, and is operating the business as a stand-alone energy retailer in a fully open market. On occasion, Stephen will lose a consumer to a competitor, but often they will want to return, and when they do, Stephen welcomes them back with a Liberty meter.
Life is stranger than fiction, the Republic of Ireland, the people who share the island with their cousins in Northern Ireland, never really considered PAYG metering; there were only 20,000 of them using token meters and there was never much thought given to cash-flow by the government-owned Electricity Supply Board [ESB]. Then the world-wide recession came along and people started to struggle with their electricity bills. In 2011, the Energy Regulator (CER) identified around 80,000 to 100,000 consumers that would need some kind of PAYG metering. The metering “experts” offered token meters, however the energy retailers already knew about, and were interested in Liberty, with more than a small “i”.
Does any of this sound familiar? As I write, we are in the process of delivering the first Liberty meters to the Republic of Ireland for use as debt recovery tools with the metering team, however the wider public also wants Liberty and a private energy supplier known as PrePayPower has filled the void. Robert Oliver and Alan Gaston would be proud! The idea of making Liberty available only to those in debt was never a serious part of their plan, whereas cash-flow improvement and bringing benefit to consumers definitely was.
Hang on tight, here we go again. At least we now know that this roller-coaster is a continuous loop and the cliff-edge does have more rails beyond it!