You may have heard of smart meters, devices which read your electricity and gas usage automatically. You probably haven’t heard that it will cost £11bn to instal over 100m gas and electric meters with associated displays and transmitters throughout the country. This money, unless some future Chancellor axes the project, will be almost entirely wasted. In a careful analysis for the Institute of Directors, Dan Lewis concludes that the energy savings are trivial, the technology is unproven and consumers will pay both financially and in their privacy.
Mr Lewis is far too polite to describe smart meters as another government IT project which is doomed to disaster, but it bears all the hallmarks. These schemes gather their own momentum, and too many contracts, companies and departmental careers become committed to them to call a halt.
Smart meters will read your consumption and transmit the data continuously. This will supposedly make us more aware of how much our energy is costing, so we’ll wake at 2am to turn on the washing machine. Economy 7 electricity already does that, but its popularity is actually declining. As Mr Lewis argues, the IT is likely to be obsolete before the roll-out is complete, replaced by an app or a simple camera pointed at an old-fashioned meter .
The meters, as envisaged, won’t turn on the dishwasher when spot electricity falls below the price you’ve set, so they are really not that smart. The smart thing to do is to scrap the whole, ill-starred project. There are other uses for £11bn.
Focus? That’ll be $738m, please
Ah, focus. That’s the buzzword at new-look, not-quite-so-plump BHP as it invites the shareholders to approve the spin-out of South32, a business which a more sentimental board might have named “Billiton”. BHP’s management has been so terribly distracted by SouthBilliton’s manganese, nickel and aluminium mining that it’s been quite unable to focus on iron ore, copper and oil.
Separation is frightfully expensive – even costlier than putting the two together 14 years ago, and turns the usual merger logic about saving on head offices, diversity of risk, economies of scale etc on its head. The best that BHP can do is to claim that the tax on the deal is less than it would be if the bits it no longer wants were simply sold off. This might suggest that nobody was prepared to pay up under today’s conditions.
Those conditions are grim. Iron ore now costs less than $55 a tonne, its lowest for six years, and is in increasing global oversupply. BHP is still making money at that price, but margins are shrinking, and the divorce will cost $738m. This is the proceeds of 13.5m tonnes of Pilbara’s finest red stuff, so in order to focus, BHP is giving away a tenth of this year’s production at the expense of its shareholders. Cui bono?, you ask. Silly question. The investment banks which put BHP together with Billiton, of course…
Euro, and I’ll steer across the Channel
A year ago a euro cost about 84p. This weekend you can pick them up for a little over 72p, and nobody has a good word to say for a stateless currency with a whirring printing press and which may be about to lose a less important limb. Such is the overwhelming consensus that the price is going only one way that a reversal cannot be far away. You can already buy a perfectly decent champagne across the Channel for a tenner and change. Ship enough to challenge the car’s supension, and you’ll get the ferry price thrown in. Time for a grand day out and a little investment in an alternative asset class…
This is my FT column from Saturday (with apologies to both readers for the delay)