Since 2008, the UK government has had a goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent. In 2019, that was upgraded to being carbon neutral by 2050. To achieve this goal, the government has introduced a system to increase consumer and business energy efficiency: smart meters. These devices are installed in people’s homes to measure their electricity and natural gas use. The information would then be sent to a display in their kitchen or a shared space, allowing consumers to be more aware of their consumption, and hence be more efficient. According to Smart Energy GB, a government backed organisation promoting the adoption of smart meters and steps towards energy efficiency, 11% of the progress towards the UK’s 2050 carbon neutral target could be done just by taking household energy efficiency measures. But how effective has it been really?
I started by asking Harry about his smart meter use. He spoke about his experience:
“I had my smart meter installed around a year ago. We were encouraged to get one by our energy company, and it’s great. We don’t have to do our own meter readings and we are now more aware of our consumption. The in-home display is on our kitchen table and has helped me improve my appliance habits (I turn things off more regularly). We live in a rented place, so despite being aware of our use we haven’t done any further improvements to our energy efficiency.”
However this is not the case for everyone. Keith and Niam had a first generation smart meter installed four years ago, and it hasn’t fully benefited them or the planet yet. Keith told me:
“I still have the device but it no longer works, the smart functionality of it was disabled after I changed energy supplier. While it was working, I made very little use of the usage statistics that were being displayed, I just let it send my readings to my energy supplier on its own. I am planning on getting another one, but it’s not a priority. I do think that if people used them more, it would have a positive impact on energy efficiency. Even if I appreciate their value, in my case I just like the automatic meter readings.”
Effectiveness depends on the engagement of the consumer
Keith’s story has revealed the main flaw with the smart metering programme, which is the same as with most green projects: its effectiveness depends on the engagement of the customer/consumer. Sadly, this means that that 11% figure is pie in the sky. However, if people are engaged, the true benefits of smart meters can truly shine. As well as displaying usage statistics, they are excellent for managing energy usage for customers on variable tariffs.
Why does this matter? Well, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have limited times of operation. Seeing as energy is, as of yet, still difficult to store, there are times when there is a surplus in energy because of the abundance of renewable energy. At these times, energy is cheaper, and so being aware of this information and applying it makes the UK’s energy consumption both cheaper and greener, for example setting your washing machine to run at these times.
To set the record straight, I asked Robert Cheesewright, who works at Smart energy GB, his opinion on the situation.
“The important thing that many people miss is that by 2030 [smart meters] will be the foundation of a smart energy network. This will mean new services will be available such as electric cars that charge during low price times, or lights that switch themselves off, or adaptive heating. All of these things will effectively automate the ability to save money. The largest changes when the market will offer products to address the problem. Smart meters are the groundwork for the system. As a side note, The 11% figure concerns all energy savings possible across the UK energy grid. There is a risk that we won’t achieve this goal if we don’t press forward with the adoption of smart technology. Overall UK customers have saved 3% on their energy bills and that figure is only going up. So all in all I’m optimistic for the future. But optimism will only go so far.”
In the end, smart meters may become a cornerstone in the shift towards a carbon neutral economy. Whether they are used to their full potential remains to be seen, as despite the climate crisis energy efficiency has taken a bit of a backburner position in the debate.