Understanding our relationship with energy and technology
Smart Lives, understanding our relationship with energy and technology
Global energy consumption is expected to rise by another 40% in the next 20 years. Whilst this rise is dominated by growth in non-OECD countries, the UK must still address its own energy consumption in order to meet carbon emission targets. The potential to optimise our energy use with the advent of the smart home and the Internet of Things is becoming a reality. Smart technology combines environmental sensors with monitoring in real-time to provide feedback, augment control over energy use or even automate appliances to give the customer the best energy savings. However, success is dependent on getting real people to use these technologies. Added to this are the economic drivers in the energy sector that don’t support the goal of reducing energy consumption - partly why consumer trust of energy providers is at an all-time low.
Nesta’s recent Hot Topics event on 'Smart Lives' in partnership with the Energy Saving Trust addressed these issues by asking whether technology and innovation will be sufficient to reduce domestic energy use.
Understanding the people using the technology
Ian Rose from PassivSystems (an advanced home monitoring platform company) detailed one of the major smart home challenges: getting innovative technology adopted requires a human touch. In a trial of PassivSystem’s software aimed at improving the efficiency of heat pumps in heating social housing for the elderly and vulnerable, they found that even if the software fulfilled its objective of maintaining a comfortable temperature and minimising energy use, the willingness to continue using the technology depended upon user understanding.
Whilst many customers understood the technology and its aims, others could not grasp this regardless of their enthusiasm to learn. As Ian pointed out, even with engagement and education we cannot expect the whole population to understand or react in the same way: one user complained that whilst the heat was comfortable for them, their dog had taken to sleeping outside since it was too hot inside. The perceived complexity of these systems in addition to widespread mistrust of the energy companies and suspicion of the reasons behind the smart meter agenda are creating a big barrier to adoption. This reality will dictate whether the Government-endorsed roll-out of Smart Meters is a success or a waste of money.
Putting the consumer first in the future energy market
The second speaker, Sara Bell of Tempus Energy introduced an innovative business model to tackle the problem of peak energy use and better harness the energy generated by renewable technologies. Tempus is aiming high: Sara wants to disrupt the energy market for the benefit of the consumer, shareholders and energy companies alike.
The cost of electricity varies according to the levels of demand and grid capacity, making it expensive during peak times but negatively priced during periods of the lowest demand. Tempus’s model uses an algorithm to optimise when non-time-dependent appliances are switched on according to electricity demand and capacity. This demand-side optimisation should give customers significant cost savings without too much disruption to routines.
However, this new model has met with resistance from the Big 6 energy providers and demand reduction on the whole does not fit with the business model of selling units of energy. Tempus will need to gain consumer trust in the face of the general supplier mistrust, especially as their system takes some control away from the customer to provide the greatest benefits. One of the biggest plus points is Tempus Energy will bill their customers according to actual usage in real time. This move signals the end of “estimated meter readings” and marks the entry of real-time data analytics into the energy sector. In addition, part of Sara and Tempus Energy’s potential lies in the commitment to their values. The value created by her business model will be shared amongst staff, shareholders and customers. Tempus also aims to earn consumer trust by treating their customers’ data responsibly, a huge public concern when it comes to smart meters. It will be interesting to see how they develop and customers respond to their business model. However, the early signs are good: its recent crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube hit 145% target investment. What may have started as a movement to solve our energy crisis may well have evolved into a demonstration of how conscientious business can be done.
The future of energy innovation
Dr Chris Brauer's research looks at the interaction between people and new technology. His focus has more recently turned towards energy and the smart home through a project funded by the Energy Saving Trust called ‘Smart Lives’. The rate of technological innovation is accelerating to such an extent that Chris believes complete connectedness will consume every aspect in our lives in the not so distant future. He stressed that this disruptive technology would likely be a positive step forward in the challenge of controlling our energy consumption but it will be important to understand how users respond to this change in their home lives. Research has shown that people do not like to look at information that reflects negatively on themselves and so care must be taken in how energy usage feedback is used to change behaviours. To understand this better, the Smart Lives project explored individual ‘smart home’ profiles and how they engaged with the technology (the full results will be published mid June). What is known, however, is that people do not behave in perfectly logical or rational ways, like the fictional Homo Economicus. Smart meters will only result in optimal day-to-day usage if people are given the time and support to understand their full potential. But it is also important to get this right from the beginning. Designing smart technologies for real people goes beyond basic ergonomics and into understanding human cognition and behaviour through collaborations between researchers, technology development and the public.
One of the biggest challenges with the smart home will be the collection and use of personal data. There is a lack of public trust when it comes to personal data privacy which is not completely unfounded. An intimate profile of an individual can be established just by combining impersonal data collected from wearables, mobile phones and sensors already in use today. Allowing various technologies to collect seemingly irrelevant data about you and your movements opens up the possibility of misuse, including identification from entirely anonymised data. Since the fear of Big Brother is real, introducing even more monitoring technologies into our home environment will place further pressure on companies to explicitly prove that the data they collect will be used for the intended purpose only. An interesting by-product of these data-collecting technologies could be behaviour change on a grand scale. Chris highlighted that people behave differently when they believe they are under surveillance (the Panopticon principle).
Successful adoption of smart technology will rely on three key factors: firstly, the technology and its rollout must be designed with real people in mind and be sympathetic to the limitations this may bring; secondly, more research needs to be done to understand how people engage with and use it; and thirdly, public trust around the collection and use of personal data needs to be addressed. Claire Maugham and SmartEnergy GB, who are taking charge of the smart meter roll out and engagement have a big challenge on their hands.
In the long run however, smart meter efficiency and energy saving will only go so far. More than 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2049 are already built. Smarter energy use through technology cannot fully address the energy inefficiency and substantial heat loss from poorly-insulated older buildings. This is another big challenge when it comes to engagement and adoption, perhaps the work being done by the likes of EST and Smart Energy GB will help inform programs retrofitting energy inefficient buildings?