Power to the people

As standalone products, smart meters cannot give consumers the information that they crave to monitor their electricity use. But, as E&T discovers, when it is combined with a home display unit the consumers have the power to control their consumption.

Home energy monitoring displays have been around for quite a few years, but it is only now, with 'green' issues and cost concerns coming to the forefront, that interest in the technology has reached critical mass. The big players have come onto the pitch including Google, which launched its PowerMeter in February, adding further momentum to this growing technology sector.

The costs of devices have fallen dramatically, with high-end products being joined by mid- and low-end offerings available for as little as £30-50. Alongside this, design has played its part by offering more desirable and fashionable units, appealing not just to traditional environmentalists, but also gadget fans and consumers looking to gain more control over their energy consumption.

All these factors have helped this market grow, but the technology still needs to prove itself - can it really make a difference? The goal is to help people lower their power usage, in turn saving costs, stopping energy shortage issues at the utilities and lowering the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere.

Currently the majority of display systems use either inductive clamps that attach to electricity feed cables or the installation of a monitoring device within the meter, measuring its action optically, mechanically or by being hardwired into the domestic supply. The measurements from these devices are then transmitted wirelessly to either a small, basic handheld display or, in the latest more advanced systems, to a Web-based interface.

Often the data is displayed numerically on a monochrome, non-graphical screen. That's fine for some, but for the non-technical it could hinder their acceptance of these tools. With this in mind, the latest displays offer more user-friendly interfaces, using colour and graphics to highlight energy usage of individual products throughout the home.

Although separate from the smart meter devices soon to be fitted across the UK, these new meters are huge enablers for the display manufacturers. This is due to the two-way wireless interface that will be used. These allow the providers, the devices around the home and the consumer's own display to communicate with the meter. Data will be transmitted around the house using standard comms protocols creating a pool of energy usage information.

Smart meters will have great communication abilities, but the meters themselves will still be installed in the same unreachable places such as under stairs, most likely with a fixed data screen in close proximity. A stand-alone display will be able to communicate with this meter and offer more detailed data in a more user-friendly format, be portable, and also allow you to interact with the meter and set up a system to use less power or when cheaper, for instance.

Communicating data

Using these improved communication abilities, the latest displays will allow you to view historical and live data, compare usage against others, and even set yourself goals, times to use certain machines and make you aware of unusual power usage.

"As hardware displays become more advanced, they can also record weekly or monthly histories, which can be transferred to a computer via USB. High-end Web-based interfaces also offer features such as automated graphs or spreadsheets to display usage more clearly," highlights Joe Polastre, CTO and co-founder of energy management company, Sentilla.

The main focus of the display is to make the information mean something. People understand about mobile phone costs per minute, and the fuel consumption of their car, now engineers are helping people to understand how they consume energy.

"For the first time, consumers will be empowered to take control of their energy usage. Consumers will have better visibility into how much energy they use and when, by analysing in real-time the data on energy used, and how much the cost is, based on the applicable tariff supplied by the energy supplier. Consumers can use this information to consider ways to change their behaviour - for example by doing their washing in the evening when electricity may be cheaper - and that way help slash their energy bills," says David Hughes, practice director, Abeam Consulting.

One of the issues, however, has been that organisations such as the Energy Saving Trust don't recommend these devices as they don't inherently save energy, they only help indirectly. Although using these devices can help save between 5 and 30 per cent by changing habits and making you aware of power hungry devices, it does come down to the consumers to make the change. Another issue that even the manufacturers consider, is that few consumers will use the solutions long-term.

"It's unlikely that more than 60 per cent remain in use six months after they were installed," notes Joel Hagan, CEO of Onzo, developer of smart energy products.

Some manufacturers are trying to find ways to overcome this by offering features that will actually control when and how you use electricity and help you to permanently change habits.

"Yes, it's a fad. Yes, it will die out. But we will always have a problem with utilities that can't cope with their customer base and once we do have smart meters and display units, life will hopefully be a little clearer," says Gerry Foskett, director of Irridian, producer of smart meters and displays.

"Our instrument analyses energy consumption patterns and checks if small changes to lifestyle will help reduce costs. Once the good habits start to slip, it can warn and ultimately automate much of the home functions. So when the fad dies, the good practices don't. That's our focus. A £30 product has no investment so when the batteries run out it's stuck in a drawer. Spending £100 or more means it's an investment and as such you'll take more care of it. It will save its value in 12 months or so and continue saving you thereafter."

The cost factor

Although costs may be the biggest factor in getting people on board, green thinking is also pervading the public consciousness, as news brings issues such as energy wastage to the fore.

Alongside legislation driving new mindsets, the younger generation is more aware of what we're doing to the planet, leading to pressure on 'elders' to make amends.

"A lot of children feel the current generation has failed them, has polluted and broken the planet and it's down to them to fix it," says Alistair Morfey of Cambridge Consultants, who also sits on the standards committee for the Energy Retail Association (ERA).

"I think there's an increasing amount of emotional blackmail which comes from children. 'Why are you throwing that away, Dad?', 'Why have you left that on?' 'Why have we got that car?' etc. I don't think its all about money, there's also this pressure, which might be quite significant."

Whatever the reasons may be, this is a positive move. Displays may be the latest way to keep tabs on home energy usage, however it's just one step in an evolving solution. Already the market is moving forward. Google's PowerMeter iGoogle gadget shows that displays are already becoming superfluous by offering the same tools in a Web application, again using data from smart meters.

More Web-based and portable products look set to come to the forefront shortly, with people such as Morfey considering a growth in dongles that communicate directly with smart meters to display data across a number of devices.

"At the moment there's a focus on these displays but I'm not sure it'll turn out like that. It doesn't matter if the data is something that appears on your TV, computer or phone screen," says Morfey. "Companies like Netgear currently make routers for Wi-Fi - I think you'll see routers that interface with the meters' comms protocols and get it through your home network too."

"The convergence of mobile technology will generate further opportunities to provide consumers with more information on their energy usage," adds Hughes. "In the future, we expect to see smart metering providing usage data to consumers via their mobile phone. As we become increasingly green conscious, more and more of us will want to have this real-time view of our carbon footprint."

Another area that's set to change is the ability to also measure gas consumption - for many their gas bills are higher than their electricity - and possibly even water in the future. Those currently working on the communications for the smart meters are aiming to use the same radio standards in both electricity and gas meters, so that the utilities and consumers can monitor both, helping to make a much bigger difference to consumption, CO2 emissions and costs.

Changes will take time and mindsets aren't converted overnight, but industry is putting the power back into the hands of the public. People want to make a change, this is clearer now more than ever, and work in these areas is helping them do so. Let's hope this 'fad' helps us make permanent changes, as the benefits could be numerous.

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