Cutting fuel bills with energy displays
4 October 2011
By Chris Blunkell
With domestic fuel bills soaring, new research funded by a Research Councils UK (RCUK) Fellowship throws welcome light on the potential of 'energy feedback' technology to help users manage their consumption of gas and electricity.
2011 has seen major suppliers twice raise the cost of energy - the result, they say, of a rise in wholesale energy prices. Increases are putting additional pressures on money-squeezed householders. The Consumer Credit Counselling Service reported in September that one in three people contacting them for help were in 'fuel poverty' - spending more than ten per cent of household income on energy in order to keep warm and meet other energy needs. In September 2011 MSP Jamie Hepburn told the BBC that in Scotland the "average household spent 14 per cent of income on gas and electricity in 2009, compared with 8 per cent in 2004-5".
As the energy industry has sought to reduce costs and manage demand, and policymakers have focused increasingly on improving fuel security and reducing emissions, so interest has increased in the potential benefits of energy displays and 'smart' meters.
Energy displays show energy use in real time, and often over previous days and weeks as well, offering information to help people better manage their energy use. The displays can be used with or without smart meters, although the two are often confused. Smart meters can send messages between provider and customer – offering more accurate billing and more efficient system management by suppliers (although privacy concerns around the availability and use of data require further attention).
The RCUK-funded study Domestic Energy Feedback by Dr Sarah Darby of the Lower Carbon Futures programme at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, suggests that there is a strong case for the use of displays. However, Sarah warns that these should not be seen as 'magic bullets' guaranteeing reduced bills.
Drawing on literature review and discussions with academics, policymakers, engineers, economists, designers and householders, the study concludes that better feedback helps users by increasing awareness of when and how they are using energy, and showing the effect of making changes.
"Recent UK and Irish trial findings, as well as many trials and experiments elsewhere, give reason to expect that customers can benefit from some reduction in their consumption," explains Dr Darby.
But there is a danger of overestimating the benefits of smart meters and displays, she warned.
"They are simply tools for managing energy use, and feedback has to be acted on to make a difference. The single most important thing the average homeowner can usually do is invest in better insulation – this often costs less than people think.
"Once that is done, and for people who aren’t in a position to make changes to their homes, there is a lot to be said for looking hard at how they are using gas and electricity and experimenting with some changes - displays can help there, and sometimes offer a few surprises."
Dr Darby's findings have seen her participate in a parliamentary round table on smart metering, advise Which? Magazine and the European Smart Metering Alliance, and appear on the BBC programme 'Click'.
The study Domestic Energy Feedback was funded by the RCUK Energy Programme.