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Smart meters + Smart buildings / People = Smart energy?

Whatever the hype around ‘smart energy’ says, it is still people that will define its success. At a Smart Buildings conference organised by InnovateUK and Teddinet it was heartening to hear that more and more work is being funded to explore the social life of smart energy technology. Through projects like EVALOC, APAtSCHE and eViz important lessons are being learnt about our interaction with smart meters and how they will fit into the home.

Below are some of the key messages I came away with:

Everyone is different

Though the aggregated graph of energy use is often used to illustrate how we need to shift demand, this is a poor representation of pretty much everyone's energy use. You can group and segment customer energy profiles to a far greater degree and this is far more useful. This was very clear from the APAtSCHE (Aging Population Attitudes to Sensor Controlled Home Energy) project. If you want people to change energy behaviours you have to understand their individual behaviour. This has been largely missing from the broader conversation but is such an important point.

As well as different energy profiles, people do not all respond to the same type of smart meter device. A lot of the focus has been on the types of smart meter displays and what data they convey. Both the APAtSCHE and eViz projects looked at how people respond to different displays and cues. End user design as part of APAtSCHE created smart meters that do not look anything like smart meters. The two designs they played with were a display through the television or a ticket machine that had no display but produced little receipt-like advice slips on energy use. eViz explored the use of pictures rather than metrics to illustrate how well the household was doing in relation to its energy reduction targets that month. This kind of approach generated much better user engagement but whether this could be sustained is unknown.

These results have quite important implications for the smart meter roll out. If engagement is so dependant on individual profiles then a universal rollout organised by suppliers who do not seem to be taking this kind of evidence into account may be a big waste of money. Though lots of thought is being put into displays and smart meters we still don’t know what kind of interventions work in the long term to drive behaviour change.

The future is automation

Consumers favour automated functions for demand response. Something that becomes even more important if you have to respond to very different individual profiles. But there is still a key question around how do you help customers understand and use this technology better.

Setting up smart meters is not necessarily straightforward

Lessons from the EVALOC project illustrated how important and potentially difficult retrofitting for smart technology is. Space was a big issue, finding places to put smart meters and sensors especially if they needed plugs was difficult. Access to meters and wires was not guaranteed. Neither was the correct installation of existing meters that the smart technology was meant to connect up with.

If you want to live in a smart home live in social housing

It seems like almost all the trails and projects that are being funded around demand side response, smart metering and even fuel poverty are done in social housing. But it is the private rental sector that is always going to be a more difficult area to figure out for all three of these issues. Unfortunately it looks like little is actually being done in this area, which is disappointing, especially as the numbers in private rented accommodation have now overtaken social renting.

Smart building doesn’t mean connected building

Smart building systems like automated ventilation are sold along with software and a maintenance contract. As a result different bits of the smart buildings don’t necessarily work together or are specifically designed to work with the building. On top of this the cost of maintenance contracts can be extremely high. In short, package subcontractors can kill savings and operability. Unfortunately customers do not readily understand what they need or should ask for. As a result even if they are willing to provide a system that will work with other bits of the building, the customer doesn’t know how to ask for this. Part of the problem is knowing who should be responsible for this- the architect, buildings manager, contractors? A dedicated systems architect may be the solution.

Smart energy is about engagement not just technology

Ofgem sees 30 min settlement-based tariffs available to customers in the next five years. The use of smart meters, the data they collect and their general success will define what these tariffs look like and how the market operates differently in the future. How the smart meter rollout engages customers and works for them will be key. But potentially the biggest issue that smart meters may be powerless to change is people’s relationship with energy. Energy is abstract and invisible to the end user. It isn’t easily connected with actions and people don’t necessarily have the capacity to add this to the large list of concerns they already have. What’s needed is a way of re-engaging people with energy, and the community energy movement is proving to be a very interesting model in this respect. Smart will help achieve the technical goals of reducing/shifting energy demand but it won’t necessarily make us want to do it. This is where we need other approaches like local generation, community ownership and a more direct contact with generation, supply and use.


Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Head of Technology Futures

Harry led Nesta’s futures and emerging technology work.

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