This blog was written by Dr Rachel Macrorie, Research Associate and portfolio lead on Urban Automation.

The largest UK infrastructure project is underway. Traditional electricity and gas meters in homes and businesses are being replaced with the next generation of digital smart meters. But evidence shows that these new monitoring technologies rarely lead to energy savings, and that they often reinforce established wasteful ways of using energy. At the same time, Government support for proven energy efficiency installations for homes and businesses is at an all time low. Important questions need asking about the smart meter roll out, what it can and can’t achieve, and who stands to benefit.

The attraction of smart energy metrics

The European Union aims for intelligent energy metering systems to be delivered to 80% of EU consumers by 2020. In the UK, five million shiny new smart meters have already been installed as part of the government’s smart meter roll out. By end 2020, the goal is for 53 million smart meters to have been installed by energy suppliers, in more than 30 million premises across the country.

When used together with in-home display devices, this way of monitoring energy and gas usage promises to give customers greater control over their utility bills. Smart metering provides accurate and real-time information about energy use to allow users to visualise when, where and how energy is being used and how much this usage costs. The hope is that these metrics will encourage householders and businesses to cut back on their daily energy consumption, saving both energy and money. Ways to do this include; changing household routines (e.g. lowering the thermostat), upgrading energy inefficient appliances, and installing insulation or renewable energy technologies.

At the same time, smart metering offers the holy grail for energy suppliers and network operators by creating ‘an unprecedented new platform for innovation in energy data’ that will allow efficient collection of billing information, easy identification of meter faults, and more sophisticated tariff structures.

The claim is then that smart metering will make Britain’s energy system more secure and resilient, help to meet carbon emission reduction targets, and create a more dynamic and competitive retail energy market.

Myth busting: Monitoring energy use at home

But do these claims stack up? Recent research investigating use of an online energy feedback tool – iMeasure (developed in 2006 by the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute) – raises questions over the merit of smart metering policy aspirations.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin’s Global Sustainability Institute and the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield sent out questionnaires to almost 3,000 people who had signed up for iMeasure, interviewed long-term users of the service, and studied conversations on energy monitoring online forums. They wanted to understand why, how and how much these enthusiasts monitored their household energy use, and whether, or not, tracking how energy was used at home led them to ‘cut down on waste’. If smart metering was to work for anyone, it should work for these ‘early adopters’.

Who monitors household energy use?

Whilst online forums allowed people using the energy feedback tool to share their experiences with one another, monitoring energy use was usually an individual endeavour. Design of the tool appealed to men (in particular) who enjoyed the gadgetry and challenge of tracking household energy performance. This meant that any lessons learnt were often not shared with other household members, sometimes producing tensions in daily household life.

Why monitor energy use at home?

Most people using monitoring tools did so after having already made changes to how energy was produced or used at home. They used the results to justify these upgrades (i.e. show their value for money). But knowing how energy is used at home was less likely to kick-start any new household efforts to lower electricity and gas consumption. Tracking household performance tended to lead people to simply tinker with their existing energy setup and it could reinforce ‘wasteful’ routines.

What does energy monitoring overlook?

People were often not prepared to compromise on when, where and how energy-consuming household activities were done. Energy monitoring tools like iMeasure are able to demonstrate the benefits of energy retrofit measures, but people often struggled to relate to energy metrics. Why? Energy monitoring tools assume that receiving information about how electricity and/or gas are used in the home will lead people to use less. But these data do not take into account what energy is being used for which cannot be separated out from (often ‘non-negotiable’) household activities.

What does this mean for energy policy?

Smart meter installation will be costly (estimated at £12.1 billion by Department of Energy and Climate Change) and emission reductions are urgently needed, so is the smart meter roll out the best policy to pursue to reduce home energy demand? This research shows that Government predictions as to why, how, and with what consequences energy monitoring tools are used may be misplaced and overemphasized. What is clear is that reducing home energy demand is not about pinpointing kilowatt hours electricity/gas used so that households can choose to cut back on their usage to save money. Instead focus should rest more on improving how we build and renovate our homes, and on changing the ways in which energy dependency is integrated into the very fabric of our daily lives.