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Using your smart meter to be a consumer, a citizen and a neighbour

Dr Stephen Hall, Leeds University, expert in: sustainable cities; energy systems; smart grids; energy policy

What do we believe in? What do we want? What are our values? These are some pretty deep questions that don’t seem to have much to do with choosing our energy supplier, or choosing what to do with our smart meters. Yet these decisions are not just household admin. They give us the opportunity to express our values and politics in ways we don’t expect.

At the same time humans are complicated, so are our values, and the ways we make meaning from the world. What smart meters mean to one person is different to what they mean to another. A smart meter itself is inert, simply wires, signals and circuits. So we have to ask why one person might see that box being installed in their home and think “great, what I can do with this?” and another might think “I don’t want this, it feels like surveillance!”.

The reasons we feel differently about inert materials like smart meters, electric cars, wind turbines etc, has little to do with the objects themselves. We form opinions based on how much we trust the companies or authorities that bring us this technology, how our peers react, and what we believe it can do for us.

The point of this blog is to explore what smart meters could do for us, if we use our imagination and think of ourselves as more than consumers. What can smart meters do for us as consumers and as citizens and as neighbours.

Let’s begin with us as a consumers. If we are getting a bad deal from the current market, if we are disengaged or just don’t understand that market, we might see a smart meter as intrusive, we may close it in a cupboard and leave it alone. If we generally trust the market and our energy company, we will be much more inclined to start using the technology in the way the market expects us to, as consumer tool.

We go into the market better armed with our new smart meter data, we know how much we use and when we use it. We can buy an electric car, charge it out of peak times and get rewarded for that. I have written elsewhere about how consumers can now start accessing new energy contracts that reward them financially (albeit in small amounts) for changing their energy behaviours and engaging more closely with the market.

But what else can smart meters do? Or more specifically what can we do with them that moves us beyond our role as consumer, and allows us to express our desires and values as citizens and neighbours? Your role as a citizen goes beyond voting. In fact every day you practise citizenship for no obvious reward when you recycle in the home. Nobody is charging you less for bin collections because you do this. The same can be true for smart metering.

If I buy an electric car it matters when I charge it, if everyone plugs in at 6pm we will all eventually need a bigger more expensive grid and then everyone has to pay. Even if I don’t get rewarded through my energy bill the ‘right’ thing to do is to charge at night. The same is true if I want to put the greenest energy possible into an electric vehicle, I can set it to charge when the grid has the highest levels of renewable electricity because I want a cleaner environment. It is not likely I will get a big financial reward for this, but I will be happier because I are living compatibly with my values of citizenship, not against them. I am using my smart meter and smart charging technology as a citizen not a consumer.

Finally a neighbourhood with smart meters is a neighbourhood with more opportunities to share energy. At the moment it is almost impossible to share energy in a community. It is technically possible to charge your neighbours car with your solar panel if you are out during the day. It is technically possible to generate store and use energy as a community. But without smart metering it is impossible to account for these arrangements and give people a fair deal for participation. Smart meters give us much more capability to come together as neighbours and take control of our individual energy resources, to use local energy more efficiently and take part in community energy projects.

In each of these roles, consumer, citizen and neighbour, having a smart meter offers a set of new capabilities and opportunities that were not available before. This allows us to expand our horizons of what we want from the energy system and our interaction with it. For those of us who see a smart meter and see a symbol of a market they don’t want to engage in, it is an opportunity to participate in the system in different ways, to disrupt the market or build a new set of energy relations based on sharing or community decision making. Just because the smart meter is a tool of the current energy system and is often framed as a consumer tool, does not mean you can’t use it as a citizen, or as a neighbour.