The smart meter roll-out: why more green groups need to get involved

Recently DECC released three consultations on the delivery of smart meters to every home in  the country. The first on technical specifications, the second on the code of practice detailing how the installation should take place and the third on how the data from smart meters should be accessed and shared.

These are critical consultations for delivering energy savings in the UK. But there’s a danger that energy savings won’t be at the forefront of DECC officials’ minds when they’re considering the responses. That’s because not very many people are likely to mention it.

Very few environmental groups are involved in the debate, which is being dominated by technical specifications and industry concerns. So, for a scheme whose business case is dependent on driving energy efficiency, there hasn’t been much talk about how to maximise energy savings.

Yet this is one of the biggest opportunities we’ve had for decades to engage householders with their energy use.

DECC are now looking at energy efficiency in more detail and are actively looking for other green groups to join the discussion. We think this is essential to re-balance priorities and are putting a call out to our NGO colleagues – get involved!

Here are seven reasons why the roll-out design is important and green groups should get involved:

  1. Smart meters alone won’t deliver energy savings. We keep banging on about this but it’s an important point: People need to act on the information they receive from smart meters to save energy. The technology on its own will do nothing. So green groups can’t sit back and think the roll out alone means it’s all sorted.
  2. The roll-out of smart meters is an unprecedented opportunity.  Every single household in the UK will be visited; someone from every household will have to spend time with an installer to discuss their energy use and learn about what information they can get from their in-home display.  We’ve not had an opportunity like this to talk to people about their energy use since the roll-out of natural gas in the 1960s and 1970s.
  3. The design of the roll-out is critical to whether savings will be achieved. The Energy Demand Research Project, which we wrote about previously showed that the way householders were engaged before, during and after the roll-out was crucial to actually getting any reductions in energy use. So getting the Code of Practice right is crucial, as it will set out how consumers will be informed about smart meters, what can be discussed while the installer is in their home, and what follow up can take place.
  4. Current plans limit discussions around energy use during the roll-out. As currently drafted the code of practice prohibits any “marketing” discussion during the roll-out unless companies have prior written consent. We don’t think that talking to householders about how to manage their energy use is marketing. We appreciate that products can be sold on the back of the discussion but we cannot be overly restrictive about this once in a generation opportunity to speak to every household about energy. We’ve been working with the consumer groups and energy providers to find a middle ground but it’s a complex discussion. Some consumer groups are mobilising to get suppliers to pledge only to install meters and nothing else at a visit.
  5. Plans limit roll-out to suppliers – but are they the best people to talk about energy savings? Who is the best person to communicate with householders about their energy use? Consumer Focus research consistently puts suppliers low down the ‘trust’ hierarchy. A recent programme with Southern Water and Groundwork showed how a more ‘trusted’ messenger, in this case an environmental regeneration charity, can do the engaging with the householder, while the utility sticks to installing technology. But the design of the roll-out has left little place for local authorities or civil society organisations to get involved, and provides few incentives for suppliers to form these partnerships, as the roll out is not being done on a regional basis. Houses on a single street may get their smart meters over the span of years, thus missing the opportunity to capitalise on the power of social norms in spreading engagement with and understanding of smart meters.
  6. With current roll-out plans there is no guarantee there will be any real discussion about energy savings at all. Whilst some suppliers see the roll-out as an opportunity to discuss energy savings, others are less keen and want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Thereby wasting this precious opportunity. What energy saving advice will be mandated? Could suppliers just hand over a leaflet and fulfil the criteria? Once again, the code of practice is critical and would benefit from the scrutiny of more green groups.
  7. Once the roll-out is over data from smart meters may not be granular enough to encourage change.  As Opower recently wrote on our blog, the frequency with which data is collected from smart meters, and who the data is shared with, will have a major impact on whether companies can successfully help people save energy. The consultation on data access stipulates that prior, written consent will be needed for third parties to access data. But Opower found that when householders had to make the effort to opt-in to sharing their data, less than 5% bothered to do so. Monthly data would allow companies to give feedback on bills, but even more could be done if the supplier has more frequent data. But the question then is, what incentive do suppliers have to actually use this data to help all customers to save energy?  As with the marketing, there are fine lines to tread here between consumer concerns and maximising environmental opportunity – the more organisations we can get involved the better the outcome we secure.

These consultations close in October and November, but throughout the Autumn DECC’s Smart Meter Consumer Advisory Group, on which Green Alliance currently sits as the only environmental group, will be discussing how to get the most out of the roll-out. Energy efficiency is one of the points for discussion.

So, who’s going to join us on the Consumer Advisory Group and help maximise the potential of smart meters? The details of the smart meter debate can seem dry from the outside, but it’s key to driving energy efficiency in the UK, and we are happy to help others get up to speed.

(Photo credit: Roadsworth)

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