Discussions and deliberations over how to run the smart meter roll-out have been going on for years: over technical capabilities, specifications and logistics…. But it is only in the last few months that thought has turned in earnest to how to engage people with the process.
This delayed focus on consumer engagement has been a massive oversight. The programme aims to get over 53 million smart meters into nearly every home by 2019. But, if households don’t accept smart meters: the scheme will fail. For after all, if almost every house in the UK is to have a smart meter, someone in every household needs to let an installer into their home.
What happens when consumer engagement goes wrong?
Experience in the state of Victoria in Australia and in California shows what happens when consumer engagement is overlooked. In both locations roll-outs had to be stopped due to consumer backlash. Helen Burt, from PG&E (Californian’s energy company) stated in response to their halted roll-out “I don’t believe we did a good job of seeing the world through the lens of the consumer.”
Problems range from health, ‘big brother’ and cost concerns to apathy and wanting to stay with the status quo. The acceptance rates currently being experienced in some of the current UK trials being undertaken show the lack of interest in the UK, EDF reports that from 86,000 calls it has managed to get just 2,000 smart meters into houses. And a quick internet search shows the building up of anti-smart meter sentiment in certain areas of the media.
It’s not just the hurdle of getting meters into homes, it’s what we do with them
But the problem is not just acceptance rates. If the scheme is to bring about the expected energy reductions that its impact assessment relies on, householders in every home will need to respond to the information they receive from their smart meter and reduce their energy use. This will be no easy feat.
Our knowledge is constantly growing about how best to encourage and enable households to reduce their energy use. A strong theme that is emerging is that more is more. The government’s own large scale trials, the Energy Demand Research project shows that the way householders are engaged before, during and after the roll-out is crucial to actually getting any reductions in energy use. While the Empower Demand research, which examines over 100 research projects globally, show that the multiple interventions from different parties is the best way to get change.
Building on strong foundations
DECC’s smart meter team has understood that the roll-out’s success fully depends on consumer engagement and the importance of consumer engagement, brands, marketing and civil society mobilisation. The department has proposed a way to fund a central delivery body (CDB) for the roll-out in a way that does not require the Treasury to put its hand in its pocket. By requiring energy suppliers, who will benefit from the programme, to fund a CDB to carry out central communications and engagement, government both harnesses the power of the private sector and its nimbleness.
But our new policy insight, Smarter communications: strengthening consumer engagement on smart meters argues that if government really wants this scheme to succeed it needs to get smarter and more robust in its plans to ensure they deliver. We propose five key recommendations; here are two of them:
Use the people we trust
DECC acknowledges that civil society, friends and neighbours are important advocates, yet its proposals do not yet ensure they will be mobilised. If we look to Digital UK, the central body which leads the digital switchover, we can see the deep and supportive engagement with civil society and households they achieved through a regional roll-out.
Only by focusing down central engagement on some kind of area-basis and making it a key part of the new CDB’s remit will this kind of deep engagement be seen. In Green Alliance’s recent report, Neither sermons nor silence: the case for national communications on energy efficiency, we examined six case studies for national change programmes, all showed that civil society support and engagement was an essential ingredient to their success.
Ensure energy savings are part of the CDB’s remit
Whilst DECC is keen for the Central Delivery Body to promote energy savings, energy suppliers, who do after all make money by selling energy, are less keen, saying it will duplicate their own effort. However as discussed above, the evidence shows that the more people are engaged on energy saving and feel it is a normal thing to do, the more likely they are to do it. And if the CDB isn’t engaging consumer groups and local authorities and individuals on energy savings in an effective, and non-burdensome way, who will be?
So while the government has come a long way from focusing only on technical specifications to looking at consumer engagement, if needs to speed up, get smarter and ensure that its plans will be delivered. For after all, isn’t consumer engagement actually the most important element of this roll-out? Without it, we may end up with a load of meters sitting in a warehouse somewhere and a lot of money wasted.