Home energy management – realizing the smart meter revolution

Energy displays and apps have complementary roles for home energy management, writes Simon Anderson, chief strategy officer, geo.
Published: Thu 04 Aug 2016

Over the next five years, smart meters will be installed in 27 million homes across the UK. It’s an impressive figure, but what is it that makes this rollout truly revolutionary? After all, the UK is not the first country to introduce smart meters and there hasn’t really been much of a revolution where they have been installed.

The reason is that the UK government has put consumers at the heart of our programme – and in doing so, energy management at the heart of the home. Instead of energy being out of sight, and therefore out of mind, for the first time every UK resident will be able to see their energy use data in a number of formats – via an energy display, energy apps, web portals – and be able to get live access to gas and electricity meter data. This last element is significant, as live data has the potential to automate other energy devices.

In-home displays monitor energy use

Green Energy Options (geo) has been involved in this revolution from the start. Ten years ago we started developing and trialling our first energy feedback and control systems. A key challenge at that time was to understand how to present this information to people who hadn’t seen it before in an easily understandable format. Those were the days before smart phones – hard to remember really – and this forced the building of very simple, cost-effective monitoring devices.

An early innovation was a speedometer-style display, which has helped thousands of customers reduce their energy usage. It’s a format that’s familiar to many but, instead of speed, the device is designed to show how much energy the home is guzzling. One customer used this to realise that the flickering light on their oven was not a faulty light but a faulty oven that was switching on and off all the time! Another customer noticed that he was constantly using a minimum of 180W. After an extensive search, he realised that he had left the lights on in his loft when he put the Christmas decorations away 6 months earlier – and that this had cost him £90… He won’t be making that mistake again!

This just goes to show how monitoring devices can deliver value simply by making it visible. And both cases could happen at any time showing the enduring value that such displays offer.  One of the main savings from energy displays is the avoidance of waste – switching things off when they are not needed. According to a 2014 BEAMA report, average savings from energy displays are twice that from other feedback measures (8.99% vs 4.88%)1.

Mobile apps for notifications

What mobile apps are great at is notifications – that little red circle in the corner of the app icon – so an emphasis with apps is to use this facility to warn users when something needs their attention. This requires first identifying what a user’s normal profile is and then alerting them when something is different or there may be an opportunity to save money.  

We are currently trialling mobile apps. What we are finding is that the two devices are best when they complement each other. Apps are not good at commanding routine attention: there is just too much else going on on a mobile device. However, a simple in-home display engages the whole family and is useful for at-a-glance situations such as when leaving the home. It’s a bit like a clock on the wall – ‘oh is that the time?’ In this case it’s ‘why is my house going so fast – what have I left on?’

So, the display is for non-specific alerts – we don’t know when people are leaving home or going to bed, etc. – whereas apps are for more structured alerts such as when you have used 10% more than your budget or have one day’s usage left on your pre-payment account.

Understand, control, automate

What we have seen over the ten years is that users go through a sequence: understand, control, automate. First they need to understand energy in the round, which energy feedback is great at. Then they want to control their energy usage using smart plugs or something similar. Quite quickly they get bored with this and want the problem taken away through automation.

In this way the smart meter rollout lays the foundation for the next stage of the energy management revolution. When the data collected by smart meters can be used to control and automate energy in the home, we’ll really start to reap the benefits of this smart technology.

1. Assessing the Use and Value of Energy Monitors in Great Britain, BEAMA 3 April 2014.