An Energy Saving Trust survey recently revealed that three quarters of the public support smart meters and the sharing of energy use data. The government hopes to offer the technology to every home and business by the end of the decade, with the roll-out kicking off in autumn 2015.
Smart meters are an important tool for helping people understand and quantify energy use. They differ from a traditional meter, by providing accurate energy use data in real-time. This can be shown on an in-home display and also read remotely by the energy supplier. Historical information on energy use and cost will allow consumers to compare current and past use.
Shahzeen Attari from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, explains that in reality people largely underestimate the energy consumption for certain devices and activities.
"For example, if you were to ask someone how much energy a dishwashing machine would use in an hour, on average they would tend to underestimate it by factor of 800 times less than what it actually consumes," she said.
The aim is for smart meters to help make energy consumption more visible to us and help us understand how much we're actually using. Attari is currently working on research to understand whether real-time feedback actually makes a difference, and whether the difference is sustained over a long period of time.
"Research has shown that people use less energy if they are more engaged with how much they are using and where and how it is being used," said Stephen Passmore, technical delivery manager at the Energy Saving Trust, in a statement. "This is supported by our survey, with 62% of people asked stating that an understanding of how much energy they were using in monetary terms on a daily basis would encourage them to be more energy efficient."
It's also important to know how much information to present to people and how. The Energy Saving Trust explored the public's preferences in how smart meter information is delivered to them – this will prove important for developers and energy companies.
However, some are concerned that the installation of the smart meter displays is an unnecessary cost. Using weblinks or smartphone apps, for example, could be a cheaper alternative to giving live feedback on energy use. However, according to Sarah Darby from the Environmental Change Institute, displays are crucial. The alternatives would not be as effective if people are distracted by other online content. Darby suggests that online mechanisms should be available as a complimentary tool to home displays.
Ian Christie, coordinator of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group at the University of Surrey, supports the introduction of smart meters, however he's not convinced that the technology alone will be sufficient to change the way we consume energy.
"Smart meters will need to be accompanied by some incentives and support systems to make us change our behaviour."
According to Christie, smart meters need to fit into a larger pattern of environmental messages – energy use information on its own is not going to be enough. Because energy consumption is a deeply ingrained behaviour that ties into work, shopping and family life, it will take quite a lot of effort to change.
Attari points out that having people adopt behaviours that save a lot of energy but are also easy to do should come before those that save a lot of energy but are harder to do. For example, changing your washer setting from hot to cold is easier than buying a more fuel-efficient car.
Surprisingly, money is not the primary incentive for change. Studies show that successful energy saving programs foster a sense of achievement and identity. Suppliers are now looking at other ways to engage users with energy-saving technologies and schemes.
Opower is an energy efficiency software firm that works with utilities in the US (and First Utility in the UK) to provide customers with information on their energy use. Their energy reports compare the customer's energy use with that of their neighbours, which has proved to be a great incentive. Behavioural science researcher Robert Cialdini, an investor in the company, explains that it is the 'norm to conform' – a behavioural phenomenon that prompts people to mimic the actions of their peers – and the desire for social approval that drive people to change.
Christie confirms that people take cue from what others around them are doing. So if our neighbours start saving energy, we will be more likely to follow in step. Compare My Energy is an online tool available in the UK that compares a consumer's energy usage with similar households in their area (though not yet for Wales). The data comes from the Department of Energy and Climate Change's National Energy Efficiency Database (NEED), and is made up from meter data provided by energy suppliers.
Energy companies are starting to take advantage of basic human behaviour to encourage people to reduce energy consumption. However, it's important that they embrace modern communication to take consumer engagement to the next level. What role can social media play in cutting energy consumption? Can apps or Facebook be used as an effective way to communicate with energy suppliers? I'll be looking at this issue in my next blog post.
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