The emergence of the smart energy consumer


Over a decade on from the emergence of smart metering in North America’s residential electricity sector, the ‘smart energy consumer’ is now here.

That is the message from the US Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) in its latest research on the ‘state of the consumer’, which also indicates that engagement and education is as important as ever and must continue to be an industry responsibility.

Early in the region’s smart meter rollout, particularly in California where the IOUs were at the forefront, it was realised that consumer engagement would be crucial. Acceptance of the new meters was one issue but more importantly to unlock the energy savings potential they were anticipated to offer and that were supporting business cases.

Since then much has changed. With digitalisation increasingly sophisticated breakdown and personalised messaging on usage from metering data has become possible. The smart and connected home has emerged. The green agenda has gathered momentum. And the trend to decentralise the energy system has become a key driver of the energy transition.

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Thus the ‘green consumer’ comes in many forms. In Australia home energy generation with solar PV is among the fastest growing in the world, for example. Scandinavian countries are leading the shift to electric vehicles. Over 300,000 homes in Germany have battery storage systems. The UK has in excess of 300 energy communities.

Within this the consumer spectrum ranges from the investor driven by the financial motivation to the technology enthusiast to the fully engaged prosumer. The smart energy consumer sits somewhere in the middle and with the critical mass that the SECC suggests may be building should be a key resource to tip the system towards wide-scale decentralisation.

Smart energy consumer

What then are the characteristics of this ‘smart energy consumer’, as drawn from the SECC’s own research and other published resources?

First, across all segments and income levels they are making the connection between smart energy technologies such as electric vehicles, smart home products and energy efficient devices and the slowing of climate change. They are concerned about how pollution affects their health and they want governments to invest more in renewables.

They also are interested in smart energy-enabled products such as thermostats, refrigerators, light bulbs and plugs. Voice assistants such as Nest are gaining favour.

Notably lower-income consumers in particular are keenly interested in smart energy and the environment. While their lack of resources puts them at a disadvantage in many aspects of daily life, their access to the benefits of smart energy is no different.

But this is no time for the industry to rest on its laurels. Consumers are looking to their energy providers for support as they deal with the fallout from the covid virus, both in relation to changing energy usage and bill payments.

They need more education on how to assess a programme or technology that might affect their energy usage and deliver on their savings expectations. And education and engagement are essential to realising the promise of beneficial electrification and advanced technologies such as smart metering.

“The smart energy industry and consumers are on a journey together, navigating tremendous change and disruption and weighing exciting new opportunities,” the SECC’s report states.

“Consumer expectations will continue to shape the future, and it is the responsibility of the electric power industry to help consumers derive value from smart energy, in whatever ways are most meaningful to them as individuals.”

Engaging the consumer

While there is no organisation comparable to the SECC outside the US undertaking continuous research into consumer understanding in the energy sector, from the examples quoted above there is clearly significant momentum building across countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Now is the time for the industry to harness this potential. Smart metering rollouts are well under way with the final run is sight in some cases with the opportunity to start realising the full benefits.

Perhaps most significantly, with a vehicle being most people’s greatest expenditure after their home, their next or next but one purchase is likely to be an EV with manufacturers – most recently Volvo – lining up to deliver all electric vehicle production as soon as 2030.

An example to look to is Australia, which has proposals out for comment to grow consumer grid-connected solar and storage with recognition and reward for becoming part of the electricity system.

“Within 10 years, half of all energy users will be using home energy options like solar. We must make sure this seismic shift doesn’t leave anyone behind,” says Australian Energy Market Commission Chief Executive, Benn Barr.

“This is about creating tailored options, not blanket solutions. But it’s important to do this fairly. We want to avoid a first-come, best dressed system because that limits the capacity for more solar into the grid. We need to think differently about the power system.”