Radical reform needed to the Coalition’s failing smart meter programme

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Radical reform needed to the Coalition’s failing smart meter programme

In 2011 the Coalition Government made a pledge that by 2015 the UK would be well advanced along the road to delivery of a smart energy grid. Three years and several inconclusive pilots later a recent report by the House of Commons Select Committee of Public Accounts has highlighted that we are no nearer to realising the benefits of this critical project. As energy bills continue to rise low-income households are relying on the next Government to learn from the mistakes of the coalition and set up the smart meter roll out in a way that will deliver the anticipated £160 annual energy bill savings that experts believe are possible.

A smart energy meter records and sends our energy consumption data on a real time basis to a digital display unit located in the home. As a range of new smart digital applications are encouraging us to make changes to healthier and more sustainable lifestyles, cialis policy makers around the world are now under pressure, due to measures agreed to safeguard our energy security and prevent climate change, to persuade us to use smart energy meters to kick start an energy saving revolution.

In theory a smart meter should deliver a benefit to households by empowering us to make the changes in our energy usage patterns that will cut our bills. However, despite the seemingly obvious benefits to us as householders, the UK’s smart roll out programme is running into vocal opposition from consumer groups, something that is also happening in countries like Australia. This growing skepticism is based on smart meter trials, which are demonstrating very little long-term energy saving benefit to consumers, a failure that is entirely due to the current Government’s proposed approach.

After a number of years of consultation the overwhelming advice to Government from consumer groups and charities has been based on three core principles. First, the Government should take advantage of trusted and local messengers – research in the UK shows that substantive and long-term behaviour change occurs where we have the chance to discuss and consider the energy challenge with our peers and friends. Secondly, people like to know that their actions are making a difference and as a result of this, on-going measurement and feedback of data should be used to reward behaviour and motivate change. Lastly, it is important to segment programmes according to different types of households, communities and lifestyles – for example linking smart meter data to some sort of fun or competitive game stimulates and sustains interest amongst 18 – 34 year olds, whereas affluent households find a shared goal such as avoiding the collective community cost of updating a local electricity sub-station more appealing.

The Coalition Government’s approach ignores these dynamics. It divorces the installation of the smart meter – marketed by Smart Energy GB and carried out by each energy supplier – from the provision of a single follow-up visit by an energy adviser. This sort of single behaviour change intervention has only worked well where the challenge for the household involves a single short-term behaviour, for example paying taxes on time or missing fewer court appearances.

For all but the most energy savvy households this single ‘nudge’ based method of engagement does not work. Energy saving in the home is not intuitive for most of us when added to the daily pressures of life and we need ongoing support from engaging and trusted sources to properly understand how our daily activities impact our energy usage and create sustained action.

Current estimates are that the cost to each of us of the £12bn smart meter infrastructure project will be around £200. For cash strapped households Labour must show that it will not repeat the mistakes of the Coalition Government. We should learn from the USA where millions of householders are seeing up to 10% energy bill reductions following large-scale behaviour change trials. Labour should also commit to adopting up to date behavioural science research to ensure that the UK benefits from the smart energy revolution. It is a revolution that is badly needed if hard-pressed households are going to cut their energy costs by the time the next general election comes around in 2020.

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