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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Finding a smart way to save energy
Luke Nicholson
Luke Nicholson

Smart meters can play a key role in helping households see where energy is being wasted, says Luke Nicholson in this week's Green Room. But he warns that the UK government must ensure the devices display the information people need to make informed choices.

Real-time monitors: How they display a home's electricity use

The amount of energy we use in our homes, and the carbon this emits, is made up of two factors: the efficiency of everything we use, from power stations to Playstations, and how efficiently we use them.

The first factor is the kind of thing that governments are good at regulating. The other one is much less familiar ground for them, but the UK's recent Energy White Paper suggests that government may try to tackle it in a forthcoming consultation; enabling people themselves to become more efficient by changing their behaviour.

There is clear potential for saving massive amounts of energy and carbon dioxide emissions through widespread behavioural change.

The opportunity is huge: the Energy Saving Trust estimates that UK homes waste more than 900m each year just by leaving appliances on standby, with almost two-thirds of us leaving lights on in empty rooms.

One-in-five people are completely unaware of how much our habits cost in terms of wasted energy.

At present there are insufficient provisions to guarantee utilities companies will produce displays that have the desired outcome of saving as much carbon as possible

Two initiatives outlined by the government in its white paper aim to give people better information: smart meters, and "real-time displays".

A smart meter would live in your cupboard and allow more accurate bills, and a real-time energy display would be in your kitchen or living room, where it can show you detailed information on your energy use, cost and carbon emissions as you go about your everyday life.

Out of the closet

Research shows that bringing energy out of the meter cupboard will give people the information they need to start making informed choices that will increase their energy efficiency and cut their energy bills, with reported savings ranging between 5% and 30%.

When they are provided with appropriate information about energy use in their own home, people can change their energy habits and save huge amounts of carbon and energy.

TV standby button (Image: BBC)
Monitors can help households see where energy is being wasted
But it is definitely too early to say which approaches work best, and government needs to provide for the pace of change that is required.

The government needs to start deploying real-time information for consumers now, and they need to assess the effectiveness of displays in ways that will not undermine the progress that needs to be made.

These are well intentioned initiatives, but some obvious pitfalls remain. Most glaringly it will be counter-intuitive for utilities companies to provide customers with a tool that actively encourages them to reduce their energy usage, without appropriate and accessible incentives.

At present there are insufficient provisions to guarantee utilities companies will produce displays that have the desired outcome of saving as much carbon as possible.

This is about engagement; displays can save between 5% and 30% of peoples' energy consumption. If the government is going to send out 20 million of the devices, it needs to put in place a mechanism to ensure they are the 30% type.

Most urgently, we must get these measures out there soon.

As the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, says himself: "There's a real will among consumers and businesses to become more energy efficient, tackle climate change and move the UK towards a low-carbon economy. Government's role is to make it as easy as possible for them to do this."

Recognising this, we must strike while the iron is hot. Every day that people are left to guess about their energy use and emissions is another day when we will pump loads more unnecessary carbon in to the atmosphere.

We need to ensure the real-time displays and smart meters households receive are effective, and are themselves low-carbon solutions
Meters and displays have the potential to help consumers to learn about energy and climate change, and to make more sustainable decisions whenever they buy a product or service.

Of course, all products and services have a carbon impact, including smart meters and real-time displays themselves.

Making tens of millions of these gadgets could itself have an enormous negative carbon impact if regulation does not ensure that these interventions will save more carbon than they create.

It is absolutely commendable that the government is engaging individuals on the issue of climate change and energy consumption; however, we need to see meaningful action here and now.

We need to ensure the real-time displays and smart meters put in households are effective, and are themselves low-carbon solutions.

They must be engaging and provide relevant information that will enable people to become more energy efficient and thus reduce domestic carbon emissions; and they must be available as soon as possible.

Luke Nicholson is creative director at More Associates.

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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