Gareth Huw Davies

Environment Blog / Green Technology

The future is smart – taking control of the energy we use

Whoever thought a thermostat could be drop-dead gorgeous? The new Nest.

Whoever thought a thermostat would be drop-dead gorgeous? The new Nest.

Do you know how much electricity you used watching TV last night, and how much it cost you? And what was your bill for mowing the lawn, and boiling the water for three cups of coffee and two pots of tea? Any clue how much your freezer costs, particularly when you haven’t defrosted it lately? And all those standby lights? What’s the bill there?

No idea? Well neither have I.

Many of us carry a mobile phone with prodigious computing power, yet the best way most of us have of checking our domestic energy consumption is to take a crude reading from the meter box and compare it with a total over several days or weeks, then try to remember what you were doing on any given day. That’s much too much effort, and of a really antediluvian kind. Consequently few people can be bothered.

Fortunately, for the benefit both of our own domestic bills, and the UK’s too high Co2 output from domestic sources, this widespread ignorance will soon be replaced by a tech-based enlightenment. A well-informed public will know as much about their energy consumption as the day’s weather forecast.

We are about to enter the world of the “Smart Grid” and, I suspect, the way we look at energy will be changed forever. Today’s simple devices will be replaced with thermostats the energy company can control, and smart meters which tell you, on your computer screen or mobile phone, exactly how much electricity and gas you’re using, as you are using it, from device to device and room to room. And what it is costing.

That should turn us into far more careful users of energy, switching off things we don’t need on, choosing devices that require less power, or moving energy consumption to a different time of day. Energy companies will be able to manage supply more precisely, so they don’t need to hold expensive backup power stations on standby.

The smart energy revolution will help the government meet its CO2 reduction targets. But there is a bonus for climate sceptics too. They gain, even if they don’t even think the planet needs to be saved. The price of energy is now a serious national concern, and the ability to micro-manage their energy use is certain to bring cost savings to many householders.

Most of us will still have quite a wait in the UK. The government will soon begin to roll out smart meters to 30 million UK homes, but the the programme isn’t expected to be completed until 2020. It’s been a slow process, and the date was recently put back by a year, although that seems sensible considering how large-scale technology projects routinely overrun both their budget and timescale.

The energy suppliers will pay to install and maintain the meters, and they will pass on this cost to their customers. The hope is that in the long run the energy companies and customers will save more than the displays cost.

In the UK we don’t know yet what sort of smart meters we’ll be issued with. There are intriguing possibilities out there. One meter can be interrogated by a energy company via a Wi-Fi link. Where homes also have smart thermostats, it’s already possible for power companies to adjust them, turning the air conditioning up and the heating down when there are big demands on the grid.

Some of the latest devices can do the job on their own. The Nest, currently on sale in the USA and not yet available in the UK, is described as a “learning” thermostat; it turns the thermostat up or down, and starts the heating earlier or later as it learns your habits. It also takes account of fluctuating temperatures as the weather changes. Customers will soon be able to control their thermostats and lighting remotely from their smartphones.

So this isn’t a futuristic fantasy. The technology for the smart grid is with us now and is being deployed.

There are a number of interesting pilot projects and larger scale schemes.

One place to watch is Wigton in Cumbria, which is taking its first steps to become a “Smart Energy Community”. Working with US company Silver Spring Networks, townspeople will use smart meters operating over a wireless communications network that will enable them to see how much energy they are using. There will be guidance on how they cut their bills.

“It is all about people making energy savings through becoming more energy-aware,” said local MP Rory Stewart.

In the USA Silver Spring Networks is involved in more advanced schemes in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Sacramento, Calif. In Austin the utility Austin Energy (AE) is piloting Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats that allow the utility to remotely adjust air conditioning units by up to four degrees on hot days, when there is heavy strain on the grid.

Customers receive an $85 rebate for each Wi-Fi thermostat they install as part of the scheme, under which they commit to curb their energy consumption during peak grid events. AE can read the actual temperature in the house and can tell if the AC unit in that house is on or off.

You can look at the inexorable rise of tech, and the way smart devices,  as they become less expensive and, well, smarter, are becoming standard aides in so much of our everyday life, and you will wonder what can possibly stop this happening.

A resistance to the notion that a not particularly well liked electricity company can actually turn the heating up or down in my house, is one possible impediment. Another is the thought that a utility could know exactly how much energy I’m using, and when, and somehow make use of that.

Most of these objections can be overcome, I feel. Who’s going to refuse a rebate in exchange for cutting, or spreading, their energy use?

The building of the domestic Smart Grid is only the start. Businesses are particularly profligate with energy. We’ve all been into shops where the heating is set to the day before yesterday’s weather forecast. Unleash smart meters and thermostats in those massive office blocks, link them intelligently into the electricity providers and we really do stand to make big savings in energy use, the bills we pay and the CO2 we put into the atmosphere.