Smart Meters Offer Best Hope Of Cutting Energy Use

IT applied to home energy use just might bring down our emissions, says Pilgrim Beart of AlertMe

Smart meters may have received some criticism lately, but they are still the best hope to reduce energy use in homes across Britain, and an opportunity to apply technology to solve a pressing problem, according to Pilgrim Beart of AlertMe.

The government’s programme to roll out smart meters to every home in the land was presented as a high-tech way to reduce energy consumption by balancing supply and demand, while turning off what isn’t being used. However, last week, the idea got knocked by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC),which wanted to see some more reliable maths behind the energy the scheme claims it will save, and by Which? magazine, which described the thing as a potential “£11  billion fiasco”.

Figures in context

With exquisite timing, Beart popped up later that week at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London, to give a lecture which put forward the case for domestic smart meters in the context of the whole country’s energy use.

Beart previously ran research and development at Splashpower, which tried and failed to commercialise induction-based charging for devices. He is now founder of AlertMe, a home security company that has re-invented itself, expanding its home technology brief into energy management. AlertMe’s products measure home electricity use, but also hook up to home broadband and allow users to remotely manage it and control devices through smart plugs.

Beart’s lecture wasn’t a product pitch, though. As this year’s Clark Maxwell lecture  on energy, he presented an overview of the country’s energy use, the part domestic energy plays in that, and the role of intelligence in bringing that under control.

Before the lecture, speaking to TechWeekEurope, he brushed off the concerns of Which? and the PAC. “None of them are saying call a halt to it,” he said. “They have just raised concerns.”

The costs of smart meters are a price worth paying, he said, even though they will be higher than Which? expects.

“The price will go up to around £15 billion,” he predicted. However, even then, it will be worthwhile, in the context of a national domestic energy bill of £26 billion, he said. The smart meter roll-out will put in 53 million meters (gas and electricity meters for each household),  and the cost will be spread over the next ten years.

The point is, that while some people are dubious about the real benefits from smart meters, Beart is a believer. If smart meters are done the right way, he thinks they really can save substantial chunks of energy.

“There have been 130 smart meter programmes in the world so far,” he said. “Most of those were put in by the utilities, for the utilities.” This sort of installation can provide remote and more accurate meter readings, and improve efficiency, but only to the extent of about three percent, he said.

Thirty of the world’s smart meter roll-outs have given the user an in-home display, said Beart, and these have provided much greater benefits: “an eight percent saving on energy used in the home. ”

The figures, he said, came from a study from energy think tank VaasaETT, which published this study in May 2010, detailing the potential conflict of interest between utilities and their customers.

The point is that nothing can be saved until it is measured, and the information made available to those who can act on it. Smart meters may cost £300, and that cost will be passed to the end user, but if they make an eight percent saving on their energy use, said Beart, they will pay for themselves in three to four years,while delivering a benefit to the nation in reducing demand.

In his lecture, Beart pointed out that “negaWatts”, or energy saved, are much cheaper and are about one eighth the price of generating new Watts of electricity. The potential of local generation, in-house combined heat and power, and other measures, can’t be fully realised until the intelligence is there to make best use of each Watt that is produced.

Over the last fourty years, our energy consumption has crept inexorably up, along with our lifestyles, and so far moves such as energy-saving lightbulbs are only marginally damping down that growth.

The application of analytic, measurement and control will bring an efficient IT sensibility to the problem he said, and he is optimistic it can all work out.

“We must try for a 2020s lifetsyle with 1970s energy consumption,” said Beart. “In the end, efficiency is good for all of us.”