Students Staff

19 December 2014

Is the Government’s multi-billion-pound smart meter roll-out a waste of energy… and money?

Colchester Campus

Radiator control

Will we turn down our heating if we have smart meters?

Government initiatives to reduce our energy use by installing 30 million smart meters by 2020 may do little to substantially cut our fuel bills, according to new research from Essex.

Smart meters with in-home displays have been growing in popularity globally as a key weapon in the fight against our increasing energy use and carbon emissions.

After all, if consumers can see for themselves the energy they are using in real time, surely they can control their energy use to help them save energy and money.

However, after closely examining research, the team at Essex have found the meters may only have a limited effect on reducing energy consumption in homes.

“The success of these devices is entirely dependent on the consumers being interested in them and engaging with them,” explained Kathryn Buchanan, from the Department of Psychology, who carried out the research. “It may seem obvious, but it seems this ‘human factor’ has been largely overlooked by policymakers.”

The study, published in Energy Policy journal, questions the effectiveness of multi-billion-pound plans to replace 53 million gas and electricity meters in 30 million UK homes and small businesses by 2020.

It highlighted three main problems with the in-home displays in their current form and the team at Essex are calling for the need to develop and test new feedback devices which will be more effective in getting consumers interested in reducing their energy use.

“We found that initially households enjoyed the novelty factor of the meters, comparing how much electricity different appliances used,” explained Kathryn, “but the interest in the meters wore off after a time.”

Analysing research data from 524,479 people in 156 field trials, the researchers found that whilst in-home displays were a good way of raising awareness of energy use and linking consumption with cost, customers only saved on average about 2% – which on an average home energy bill of £1,284 would mean only £2-3 savings per month.

“The problem is some behaviour won’t change, such as putting on the kettle when you get home from work,” added Kathryn, “People do not use energy for the sake of it – it is a by-product of people’s everyday lives.”

The second issue was that some consumers were not interested in the meters as their circumstances – ie they were living in rental accommodation – meant they could not make the necessary changes to reduce their energy consumption.

Worryingly, the third concern was that for some households the in-home displays could trigger unintended consequences leading to increased energy use after consumers realised the cost of certain behaviour – ie taking a longer shower – would not cost them as much as they thought.

The study is part of a major project called DANCER which is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to design and develop a home energy management system which can reduce energy use without compromising on comfort. The next phase of the project will be to design a home energy management system and trial them next winter in similar flats.


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