When Jane Seymour and her husband Jerry installed solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of their home in Sheffield 18 months ago, they virtually stopped using their tumble dryer, as they became aware that the old machine was guzzling more than half as much electricity as their four-kilowatt solar system could produce in a day.
An increasing number of people, like Jane, 54, a professor at the University of Nottingham, are investing in so-called microgeneration to try and combat rising energy bills and take advantage of schemes such as the government’s feed-in tariffs.
“Since I installed the panels, I walk around the house making sure appliances are switched off,” she says. “I think about how much I spent on the panels and try to make sure that we can use them efficiently. Then I think about the sheer cost of our energy bills, so if we can do anything to reduce them that’s really good.”
Solar power is just one of a range of emerging technologies expected to play a key role in changing the way homes and businesses think about consumer energy over the coming years.
Under government plans, each of the UK’s 27m homes and businesses will have a smart meter and display installed by the end of 2019, allowing energy suppliers to receive accurate consumption data to put an end to estimated billing.
The vision is for every home in the UK to be able to easily track how much energy it is consuming, carbon it is emitting and money it is spending, at any given moment through a two-way communication function on the meter.
According to a recent study by Oxford Economics, the mass roll out of smart meters will cost £11.5bn but save £25.4bn, leading to a net gain for the UK of nearly £14bn between now and 2030. For an average household on a dual fuel tariff, that could result in savings of £65.50 a year, based on a 5% reduction in energy usage, as they respond to using the meters.
Steve Cunningham, chief executive of smart meter company Landys+Gyr, admits that some habits die hard, so there will remain a handful of consumers that will be unable or refuse to change their consumption habits, even once they have identified energy guzzling appliances. But he also predicts that new automated smart technologies will help to negate the need for consumers to change at all.
The Nest Learning Thermostat in the US, for example, claims to be able to lower heating and cooling bills by up to 20%, using sensors to remember and then program itself to a household’s schedule, for example by switching off the heating when everyone is out. Alterations can even be controlled by a smartphone to fit in with busy lifestyles.
Competition among people is also expected to play a role in driving greater energy efficiency. In the US, Opower and the National Resource Defense Council have started using social media to tap into our competitive spirits. The Opower Facebook app allows users to compare their energy use with friends and family after connecting with utilities to pull in usage figures.
New technologies such as this are likely to cause concern about privacy, given that energy data could reveal your daily routine and what you are doing in your home.
However, the government maintains it is taking the issue seriously. For example, energy companies will be forced to get consent from homeowners if they want to collect data more than once a day.
Experts also believe smart meters will help to drive down prices by encouraging greater competition in the energy market. A single data communications company will be introduced to make it significantly easier for consumers to switch suppliers, while a new range of tariffs could be launched that encourage energy efficient behaviour.
Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.ON UK, predicted that utilities would be able to offer tariffs that enable customers to choose to take their electricity at different parts of the day, for example when it is cheapest and demand is low.
The company also predicts that smart meters could one day act as a central control unit in the home, recognising when the rooftop solar panels are generating and then flick the switch on the washing machine. They could also link up with electric cars, ensuring battery packs charge when demand is low, and feed power back into the grid if it knows the car was staying in the garage all day.
“Smart meters help our customers to understand their energy use and then reduce demand as best as they can,” he said. “We’ve already seen from trials that our customers with smart meters really do start to understand how they can reduce energy to make significant gains. They then need the education and encouragement to help them make changes.
This feature first appeared in a Guardian supplement sponsored by E.ON