Smart meters and how they display energy usage could be key in changing consumer attitudes and behaviours.

Scotland is committed to an ambitious target to tackle climate change. Renewable sources are to meet 50 per cent of our heat, transport and electricity needs by 2030. One way to achieve this goal is to be smarter about the energy we currently use.

A roll-out of smart meters is supposed to herald a revolution in energy consumption habits in households across the UK. But are these meters up to the task? Will access to data truly influence our behaviour and reduce the energy we use?

Researchers from the Scottish Energy Centre attempted to answer these questions by installing smart energy devices in the homes of ordinary Scots and monitoring their use. The effects of the device on the behaviour of families were analysed via energy usage data and follow-up interviews. The results of the study were clear: when given access to data on their energy consumption habits people do change their energy use.

When compared to households without a monitor, those equipped with the smart device reduced energy consumption. Over a 37-month period the device resulted in reductions of 27 per cent in gas consumption and 21 per cent in electricity consumption.

The smart home revolution

A smart home provides data to homeowners about what’s happening under their roof. Utility companies are rolling out smart meters – 53 million in the UK by 2020 – but how the information is displayed on these meters is crucial.

The Scottish Energy Centre’s research evaluated the effectiveness of the user interface on smart meters – how meter data was displayed – by monitoring changes in gas and electricity consumption behaviour in people’s homes before and after device installation.

Dr. Jon Stinson, from the research team, wanted to get to the bottom of an important problem: “We wanted to engage with occupants and understand their needs and expectations. Is simply providing data enough? Does it prompt change in behaviour and lead to new energy saving habits?”

Does access to energy data lead to behaviour change?

The drops in energy consumption that the study recorded were striking. Simply having access to their data clearly gave residents an incentive to pay greater attention to their energy usage habits.

Dr. Stinson and the team pin-pointed the need for further research on how meters display energy consumption. The smart meters they tested appear to be particularly effective because of the straightforward way they visualise data.

By developing exactly how this data is presented, even more radical and sustained behaviour change might be possible. Could connected mobile apps, for example, encourage lower energy consumption? The team’s ongoing research focuses on how to ensure data won’t be ignored and that conservation habits stick.

What’s next for smart energy technology?

How information is displayed is as important as the installation of a smart device in the first instance. Energy meters that offer an incomprehensible readout of statistics are unlikely to alter behaviour. Instead, consumers need access to a well-designed user interface which, at a glance, reveals easily understood, actionable data.

Smart technology is worthless unless it can help us understand exactly how energy is being used and incentivise us to lower – and keep low – both our utility bills and carbon footprint. Truly smart technology should result in smart outcomes: reaching climate change goals through better interface design could well be one.