How ‘smart’ is our smart energy sector?


The term smart is prefixed to everything and anything these days. Our smart watch tracks our journey home, where we relax in front of our smart TV, which we can control through our smartphone. Smart tech has well and truly infiltrated our lives.

But in this world where anything can be smart, have we lost sight of what this really means? When is smart just a marketing ambition and when is it a reality?

The true meaning of smart

Industry has created their own definition of smart – imbued with ideas of convergence and connectivity. But there’s a whole host of consumers whose expectations are more aligned with the traditional sense of the term – intelligence.

When presented with smart tech they want to think, “now that’s really clever” and the ultimate appeal is that it makes life easier and more enjoyable.

Most people would agree that smartphones are indeed smart – they offer many clever, life-enhancing features. But can we say the same about a smart meter? Is it really that smart? Smart metering may fit the industry definition, but how can we transform it to fulfil consumers’ expectations?

Using data wisely

In this tale of smart energy, smart meters are the opening chapter – offering the opportunity to engage a huge audience and encourage a smart energy revolution.

[quote] Smart should mean using data to increase the ‘cleverness’ of the function.

In the past ten years, the core challenge has been getting the data – reliably collecting, transferring, cleaning and storing it all at a low cost.

This information needs to be timely, as well as accurate, and for most uses needs to be local – the complexity, reliability and time delay involved in passing data from a meter operator back to the user’s premises makes it impractical for anything other than retrospective billing.

Standard meters don’t provide relevant data. Consequently, there’s not much smart energy functionality around at the moment. Where there is, solutions are limited and often require installation, which is a major cost driver.

The impact of smart meters

The UK government plans to install 53m smart gas and electric meters by 2020 to reduce carbon emissions, consumer bills and ensure efficient and reliable grids
A home energy monitor is a key part of the UK government’s rollout of 53m smart gas and electric meters by 2020

Smart meters should change all this – right? Well, it depends where you are.

Across the vast majority of the world the answer is no. Smart meters provide data to the meter operators – but when it comes to controlling energy in the home they’re of no value.

Smart? Perhaps from the narrow perspective of the distribution network operator, marginally from a government perspective, but certainly not from the perspective that matters – that of the consumer. And they’re the ones footing the bill.

If you’re in the UK, or Holland, the story is very different.

In these areas, local access to data is part of the solution and this is leading to a revolution in the way that energy is being viewed.

Here in the UK, the provision of a Consumer Access Device, and in the Netherlands the fitting of a P1 port on all meters, is generating a growing degree of innovation. In these markets, the story will progress more positively – energy will get smarter and smarter.

Thanks to their local data features, British and Dutch smart meters will enable two layers of smart energy application.

The base level being in-home data visualisation – making users aware of their consumption so they can make energy efficient choices. Then there’s the more advanced, and exciting, prospect of automation – a home that makes the energy efficient choices all by itself.

In the rest of the world, where smart meters fail to deliver in-home data, none of this innovation is possible. This is certainly not smart and actually quite worrying.

The hybrid home

I see the immediate future being a convergence of energy feedback, solar and heating control in a ‘hybrid home’. As with a hybrid car, this will be a fusion of traditional and novel ways of generating, storing and using energy. People won’t need to change their habits – the system will ensure that they’re using energy in the most efficient way.

This is the consumer-friendly conclusion to the story of smart energy and it will be enabled by smart meters – that is, meters that give in-home access to real-time tariff and consumption data and that facilitate demand flexibility functionality.

As it stands, many smart meters simply aren’t smart enough – and this needs to change. How? By making energy data available directly to users, in their own homes. Then, and only then, will consumers finally feel empowered to make energy efficient choices – and smart meters will finally deserve their smart prefix.

About the author

Simon Anderson is chief strategy officer at Geo, a UK energy monitoring company based in Cambridge.