Smart meters – the next step?

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Back in December of last year the then Energy Secretary –  Ed Miliband (what ever happened to him?), was promoting smart meters to all UK households as the ‘holy grail’ of green energy management and a way to save the planet. At the time I was somewhat sceptical, and it would appear that I had reason to be.

Recent research by a University of Oxford scientist found that the devices alone were unlikely to lead to an overall reduction in the demand for energy, it showed that 70 percent of British households would ignore any information provided by their smart meters – a more creative use is required!

The idea of smart meters is fine, a lot of us are using gas and electricity without realising we are using it, if you had a wood fire and went away for the weekend, then the fire would go out. However, if you leave the central heating or electrical appliances on when you go away, you may be none the wiser. The “feedback effect” provided by the smart meter (telling people how much energy has been used over a period of time, or how much energy a particular activity/appliance has consumed)  is  important in energy demand reduction as it helps people who want to save energy to use the information from their metering and bills as an important part of that feedback.

Using the old-style meter means that you have got to be fairly diligent to do that – even if you do check it every day or month, it does not give you a breakdown of how you are using the gas or electricity like the smart meter does. However, there is still a lot of confusion over what a smart meter is, despite the devices being hailed as key in the effort to curb energy use in the UK. They require more than just ‘plugging in and watching’ to make a real difference. If you are one of those people who monitors their meter religiously you will get alot from it – but most don’t!

It is possible to have a smart meter that does not have a display on it at all, in fact most smart meters don’t. These are currently used by the service providers to produce more accurate bills.

The research suggests that smart meters should be used to help users control their energy consumption because they will get [accurate] bills, and because it is possible for them to have a breakdown about their energy use. But it suggests that the meters have the potential to offer far more that just “feedback to customers”.

Essentially, as previously indicated ,a smart meter is a meter with communications technology. You can use that technology in different ways: it could turn your water heating on and off, according to the needs of the utilities, to fit in with load balancing. For example, at a time of peak demand, the utility company could switch off your water heater and they would offer you a special tariff to be allowed to do that. Instead it would switch on your immersion heater at a time of low demand.

This more intelligent use may not reduce the overall use of electricity, but it would allow the suppliers to manage loads on the system far more effectively – especially as the balance between supply and demand gets tighter and, particularly, as we get more renewables on the system; if the wind is blowing then you want to make the most of it. Their role may well be as part of the ‘smart network’ that the producers are trying to put together across Europe.

The UK Government estimates suggest that smart meters could save around 34m tonnes of CO2 emissions over a 20-year period as people become more aware of the energy they are using. Currently, according to government figures, households account for 26% of the UK’s energy use and CO2 emissions. It has also calculated that in excess of £900m of electricity is wasted each year as a result of appliances being left on standby.

So this far more creative use of meters may be the answer – but we have a long way to go (and hopefully Ed will come up with some better ideas in his new job!)


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