Blog: Towards a digital nation: the switch to smart meters

Susanne Webster
Susanne Webster

As the national rollout of digital smart meters gets underway, Susanne Webster, policy and practice co-ordinator at CIH Scotland blogs about the potential impact and how the new meters can help us all make smarter energy choices.

As the national roll out of smart meters gathers pace, leading experts in technology, energy and behavioural change came together in Glasgow to discuss progress at Smart Energy GB’s Smarter Scotland: Towards a Digital Nation event at Strathclyde University’s Technology and Innovation Centre.

The rollout is being hailed as a significant step forward in the fight against climate change and fuel poverty, and with energy efficiency now defined as a National Infrastructure Priority (NIP) in Scotland, the switch to smart meters has got many people talking.

So, what’s all the fuss about?

As the increasing digitalisation of services has brought about improvements in many areas of everyday life, from banking and shopping to booking a taxi (think Uber), the energy sector still lags behind, with a continued reliance on manual meter readings and estimated bills.

Smart meterDigital smart meters are set to change all of that, offering consumers much more control over how they measure, monitor, and use their energy, leading to reduced bills and a reduction in energy emissions. For the first time, consumers will be able to see in real time the impact of their energy choices and will be able to adjust their behaviours accordingly. According to research by Smart Energy GB, 8 out of 10 smart meter users have already taken significant steps to reduce their energy consumption and the same number would recommend the use of smart meters as a money saving device to others.

Supporters of the rollout also point to the fact that the move to digital smart meters will provide a platform for continued improvements and innovations in the energy sector, helping to increase competition and ultimately drive up standards for consumers.

So is there a downside?

Well, while all of this sounds great in theory, there are still some concerns about the switch to digital smart meters. As with anything ‘digital’, there are questions over how much of our energy data will be stored, who will have access to it, and how it will be used. For some, the handing over of more of our personal data to large companies carries an element of trepidation.

Furthermore, while the initial signs of behaviour change for those who currently use smart meters are encouraging, the impacts of our ‘smarter’ energy choices are still in the early stages, and we will need more continued research in the longer term to tell us whether or not people actually maintain these new behaviours when the novelty of first using a smart meter has worn off.

The rollout also carries with it a very ambitious target of installing 53 million smart meters across the UK by 2020. As only 3 million meters have been installed to date, coupled with the fact that the scheme is voluntary, there are concerns that this target is not just ambitious but simply not achievable. In order to get anywhere close to this, the Scottish Government, along with the energy industry itself, will need to provide a sustained and effective public awareness campaign to get people on board with the switch to digital meters.

So what should we make of it all?

While there are rightly some concerns over the rollout of smart meters, many of these are greatly outweighed by the benefits to consumers. The ability to easily monitor and control our energy use is an important tool in helping us all to be more energy efficient, reduce our carbon footprint, and hopefully save us some money along the way. And while smart meters are by no means the magic wand solution to end fuel poverty, any steps which go some way towards helping to tackle this issue should be warmly welcomed.

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