The UK is leading the world in terms of engaging consumers in the energy issue, but we still have a long way to go. The challenge we face is that growing demand for electricity due to the electrification of cars and heating will threaten our national grid infrastructure, which is not sustainable, so change has to happen.
For a long time, energy has been held at arms-length from consumers, who, as a result, are often unaware of their energy usage behaviour. With the arrival of smart technology, energy in the home is becoming more visible, more connected with energy-conscious homeowners and easier to understand and control.
Developers of smart solutions are putting energy management in the hands of consumers as illustrated by the Government initiative to install smart meters in every home in the UK by 2020. And smart technology is resonating further with consumers who are increasingly fitting smart devices of their own in the form of smart thermostats and smart lighting. These stand to grow even more popular as users see just by looking at their smart meter in-home display or from a user-friendly smartphone interface just how much energy they are using and how they can change that to reduce emissions and costs.
Eventually the adoption of smart technologies will result in not only a more connected home, but a ‘hybrid home’, and this will be good news for consumers, the environment and energy providers. To picture a hybrid home first consider a hybrid car; it combines traditional and modern ways of delivering power to reduce running costs and improve driving enjoyment. The hybrid home does just the same: using solar panels, battery storage, smart heating controls and smart meters to deliver lower running costs and greater living enjoyment. It could be argued that we are already on our way to achieving this, since we already have smart devices for the home, but the difference is that in today’s hybrid car all the elements work together in harmony; in the home all the elements are still separate.
Eventually, we will see integrated energy management systems being installed in homes to help individual technologies to work smarter, but for this to happen, consumers have to be fully engaged. Smart devices are convenient, they allow the heating to be switched on or off remotely from a mobile phone or the lighting to be controlled when the homeowner is away, but their value is so much greater than this.
One of the most important functions of smart home technology is that it can and will help with the much bigger issue of electricity demand outweighing electricity supply. The consumer’s role will become pivotal because it’s their demand that must be modified to balance the grid – or billions of pounds will need to be spent on strengthening our current infrastructure and building new power stations. So, consumers have to be put at the heart of energy policy, as the government has started to do with smart meters, and smart technologies introduced progressively into our homes to work in the background just as they do with a hybrid car. The immediate impact will be lower energy costs and greater energy efficiency in the home, the long-term impact will be an opportunity to ‘smooth out’ energy demand peaks and reduce pressure on the national grid.
This will work by moving away from a centralised one-way energy system to a two-way distribution system. The energy that consumers generate through solar panels, for example, could be stored and used to help balance the grid locally.
Smart home technology has a much bigger part to play than just making homeowners’ lives easier. At the moment, it’s about making energy visible and engaging consumers in understanding the need for the flexible management of energy. In the not-too-distant future it will be about efficiently balancing our home consumption. This is fundamental to our futures. If we don’t combine to balance supply with demand it will literally be lights out!
By Simon Anderson, chief strategy officer, geo