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Why we're all missing out on smart meter savings

It’s time to get smarter over the cost cutting weapon of choice

Felicity Hannah
Friday 05 April 2019 12:44 BST
TV presenter Phil Spencer promotes the installation of smart meters across Britain
TV presenter Phil Spencer promotes the installation of smart meters across Britain (Getty)

Energy giant SSE agreed to donate £700,000 to the official fund for supporting vulnerable bill payers this week after failing to meet obligatory smart gas meter installation targets.

It’s the latest in a series of hits, delays and, ironically, spiralling bills to have plagued the much-vaunted smart meter rollout, designed to deliver cost-saving technology to 30 million homes and small businesses by 2020.

But experts are still urging us to keep the faith. “Smart meters will provide benefits to consumers,” Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, says.

“They put the customer in control – whether that’s by more accurate billing or helping them consider how to reduce the amount of energy they use.”

But she’s adamant that the deadline must be pushed back to 2023, adding: “The deadline for smart meters to be installed in all homes and small businesses by the end of 2020 remains unrealistic.”

The truth is, it’s not just SSE that’s failing to capitalise on the smart meter potential.

A huge number of homes are missing out on what smart meters can do to save us all much-needed cash.

Explosion of tech

Professor Will Swan is the lead researcher at the University of Salford’s smart meter laboratory. He says the UK is in the midst of an explosion of tech, but one that is having precious little impact on core objectives such as lowering bills, cutting carbon and improving customer satisfaction.

“Domestic energy systems are becoming more complex due to the advent of time-of-use tariffs, energy storage, renewables and greater fluidity in the customer-supplier relationship,” he explains.

“It is vital that science provides some clarity around the benefits, possibilities and pitfalls of this new home energy technology for consumers, regulators and innovators.”

He’s right that the smart meter tech has so far failed to excite many people.

Satisfaction is relatively high – Citizens Advice says 80 per cent of people who have had one fitted say they are satisfied with it.

But the actual savings for customers are uninspiring. A report from the British Infrastructure Group last year found people with smart meters installed are expected to save households just £11 a year, far less than initially thought.

Conservative MP Grant Shapps, who chairs the group, said at the time: “Although the entire programme has been funded by customers through higher energy bills, unlike energy suppliers themselves, they are not presently guaranteed to see the majority of the savings that do materialise.”

So how could smart meters do more?

New opportunities

Dr Richard Fitton, lecturer in energy efficiency at the University of Salford, who advises parliament on home energy measurement, suggests the technology involved should be performing better.

Speaking at the launch of the new smart meter lab last year, he said: “The smart meter infrastructure presents a major new opportunity for innovation in the UK. We could see whole new categories of products and services that change the way we consume, produce and store energy, bringing potential benefits to consumers.”

Currently, many people simply use their smart meters as an energy monitor, relying on the display information to help them adapt their energy use.

On top of that, they bring to an end the need to estimate bills, meaning customers aren’t at risk of over or underpaying for their energy.

But these devices could do far more for us. Wider understanding and use of a smart meter display panel won’t help people adapt their energy use if it is buried away behind a load of other junk.

There are a few different ways the display screen can be set up, ranging from spending per month to average use comparisons, so it’s a good idea for householders to have a play and see which display best meets their needs.

Having clear sight of how much energy a house is using has been shown to help people bring down the cost over time and that reduction can be sustained by keeping the panel on display.

But that means customer engagement and that just isn’t happening.

A report from the National Audit Office into the rollout revealed that 2.1 million of the 6.8 million households that have smart meters installed do not remember getting any energy efficiency advice at the time.

Suppliers are obliged to do so and to explain how the in-home display works, but some huge cost-saving opportunities are being missed.

Driving up electric vehicle uptake

The agency that promotes smart meters, Smart Energy GB, polled 2,000 people and found that more than a third said they would be more likely to buy an electric vehicle (EV) if they could use their smart meter to programme charging for the cheapest periods.

Dr Stephen Hall, researcher at the University of Leeds, which worked on a report into EVs and smart meters, says smart meters could play a key role in driving adoption.

“Smart meters can put us in the fast lane for consumer control over energy choices which encourages the uptake of electric vehicles in Britain,” he says.

“They pave the way for new energy tariffs which will reward drivers for charging off-peak with cheaper power. They can also enable EV owners to be even more environmentally friendly by matching charging with the greenest electricity on the system. Putting electric vehicles and smart meters together offers us an incredible prize, sustainable driving, which as a car fan and environmentalist is really exciting.”

Energy tariffs could get smarter

For smart meters to really help customers save, more could be done to allow them to use power when it’s cheapest or most environmentally friendly.

One early example of this is the Agile Octopus tariff from Octopus Energy. It communicates with smart meters and other smart home tech to control the energy a home consumes, including turning the immersion heater off when prices are high or powering up appliances when they are low.

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