Smart Meters: Not so smart without behavioural change

Posted by Rachael Pullen on April 14, 2016

smart meter

The smart meter roll out is well underway with most homes in the UK boasting a new device by 2017 and all homes by 2020.

Smart meters can be really useful tools giving customers up-to-date, real time information on their energy use, enabling accurate billing from the energy provider – no more estimated bills (ensuring transparency), and making energy consumption easier to understand for everyone. But, however smart the smart meter, it won’t automatically reduce your energy consumption or dramatically lower your bills. It just creates data.

Every home will receive an in-home display device (IHD) with their smart meter – so you can review the data that the smart meter produces.  A great idea in principle, unfortunately information provided by the smart meter isn’t particularly interesting or engaging.  In fact, several studies have shown very few consumers use their device, and of those who do, they discard them into a drawer in less than six months never to see the light of day again.

Without consumer engagement the smart meter can’t do what it’s designed to do. What the government failed to do was to anticipate the behavioural change that this project would require.  A common reason for many large scale problems to fail. Like most projects, particularly ones that involve technology, at the centre is a significant change programme.

In order to really unlock the potential of smart meters, utility providers need to find a way to make the data the smart meter produces engaging and actionable.  The government, having realised that a change in behaviour is required to make the project a success, have last month, published new rules allowing energy suppliers the freedom to trial alternative in home devices.  This means that the technology for in-home devices is no longer mandated and utilities would be free to choose the hardware and/or software to deliver the best and cheapest outcome for consumers.  For example, given the pervasiveness of smartphones/tablets an app could be developed.  This could remove millions from the cost of the roll out for all of the larger suppliers.  The focus is now less on devices and more on energy efficiency and affordable, measurable outcomes.  The trial of new IHD’s will run in parallel to the smart meter rollout, meaning that there will be no delay to the overall programme.

This is a great opportunity for energy suppliers to be innovative whilst building better relationships with their customers. It’s also a great opportunity for consumers to have a device or an application which will engage them and encourage action and change.  It’s a great opportunity for the government to de-risk their smart meter roll out.  A win win situation.

If utilities can get the smart meter ‘in home device’ right and can encourage the right behavioural change then smart meters will deliver what they are designed to do: help consumers to reduce their energy consumption and ultimately lower their energy bills.

The cost of the smart meter roll out is estimated at £11 billion and is arguably the largest capital investment of this parliament.  Both the programme and its management has been heavily criticised in recent years.  By engaging the user and anticipating the behavioural change required the smart meter roll out could still be a great success.