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Smart Metering: Getting the Consumer Onside

The date is July 15, 1979 and at the White House in Washington DC, President Jimmy Carter has just completed an historic televised address to the nation. The thoughts of the American public turn from their small television sets and the grainy images of the President and back to enjoying their balmy summer evening. Meanwhile, the President turns to his assembled advisors and asks the key question: "Will it work?"

For those that are not old enough to remember this moment, President Carter was asking whether the American people would heed his call to save energy and play their part in averting the impending energy crisis he had just gravely portrayed.

Unfortunately, the disappointing answer arrived only three days later. Results of doorstep interviews revealed there was no difference in energy consumption behaviour between those who had watched the televised appeal and those that had not. The public had listened, but they had not learned.

Fast forward to 2011 and the UK is poised to begin its largest energy conservation programme yet: the roll out of smart meters to all households. Much like President Carter's address, this project has the clear aim of driving down energy usage by both influencing consumers and providing them with the means to change their consumption habits. But will history repeat itself? Or this time, will the public listen AND learn?

History's Energy Lesson

Back in 1979, Jimmy Carter's appeal was unsuccessful largely because his message failed to motivate consumers to change their energy consumption behaviour. To understand how to successfully achieve such a behavioural change we need to turn to a field of research that lifts the lid on the concept of motivation, namely that of psychology, and apply it to energy conservation.

Let's start at the beginning. As witnessed by President Carter's efforts, information alone is not enough to change behaviour. Researchi suggests that providing information, such as that on energy-saving techniques, can result in an increase in knowledge, but rarely results in a change in behaviour. So why is this?

Psychology contends that information alone does not typically motivate behavioural change. Motivation is definedii as 'a process that causes arousal, direction and persistence of behaviour'. As such, in order to motivate, the information disseminated must meet these conditions. One of the most powerful techniques to cause arousal is to personalise this information.

For an example of successful personalisation in the energy sector, we need look no further than home-energy audits, whereby homeowners are provided with specific advice on tangible energy-saving measures. Research clearly demonstrates a link between these highly-tailored interventions, and tangible energy-saving behaviour, with some studies finding energy use reductions of up to 20% vs. control groupsiii.

The deployment of new technology, including smart meters taking regular automatic electricity and gas readings and sending them to the supplier via a communications network, promises to bring a new level of personalisation to the home. The idea is that each smart meter will be coupled with an in-home display (IHD) to provide near real-time information on energy consumption in an easily understandable form. When this knowledge of consumption is added to information about energy saving options via the IHD, it is hoped that this will encourage consumers to play a far more active role in the supply chain -- taking greater control over their energy consumption, carbon emissions and energy costs. But as history suggests, delivering information is not enough. For consumers to be continually engaged with the process, their actions must be prompted by a robust and seamless technology system.

Giving Consumers A Helping HAN

Typically, a smart meter is installed for each energy source and then they are paired, with the electricity meter acting as a hub and pulling consumption data from the gas meter. This creates a very basic HAN (Home Area Network). Smart meters can also be paired with an IHD linked to the latest energy prices to show the consumer in near real-time what they are using and how much they're spending. The HAN could also include 'smart appliances' such as washing machines or fridges which would have the intelligence to alter running times to balance the grid, or to allow consumers to make the most of flexible tariffs.

Where the HAN provides the customer with a mechanism to view their usage, the Wide Area Network (WAN) is the link between the smart meters and the supplier. It is the WAN that delivers the two-way communications necessary to ensure that not only will suppliers receive information from the smart meter (and vice versa for consumers), but also have the ability to communicate directly with the other devices comprising the HAN. This two-way communication would allow for 'live' tariff information and also energy efficiency advice to be sent to the consumer by the supplier.

This kind of feedback allows outcomes to be associated with behaviours, and has been shown to provide a powerful mechanism to bring about behavioural change. The new in-home technology being developed now will deliver feedback continuously to the consumer, even enabling data-intensive real-time energy usage provided by the IHD within the HAN. However, these kinds of technologies would have to be highly flexible to meet both the needs of the supplier and the consumer.

The provision of feedback in this way is extremely powerful because it meets the 'persistence' condition of motivation. In other words, if consumers are repeatedly reminded of how they are performing, then the message is kept alive. However, for consumers to be motivated to act, they also need to believe that the outcome of their behaviour -- their energy consumption -- is explicitly linked to how they act. For example, running a dishwasher at off-peak times, or turning off lights when they are not needed should be explicitly linked to a reduction in energy consumption. The danger is that if the link is lost, consumers might feel that their behaviour has no impact on the outcome, and will simply stop trying.

Driving Engagement

The in-home technology driving the energy revolution also has additional benefits in motivating the consumer to actively engage with it by providing the ability to control domestic appliances and devices remotely. This is an area that will be seen as a really critical change within the home, saving consumers money and providing additional security. With these new in-home technologies, consumers will have the ability to not only control appliances remotely, but also heating and lighting, perhaps turning off all the lights in a house from their smart phones after they've left for work, or switching off a TV upstairs from downstairs at the touch of a button. They could even activate a forgotten burglar alarm from a foreign beach.

What then of hard cash? Can the promise of financial rewards alone -- predominantly from reduced bills due to lower consumption but also in the form of cheaper tariffs for customers who are happy to relinquish some control over the running time of some appliances to utilities -- motivate consumers to change their behaviour? Research suggests the answer is a confusing 'maybe'. Studies have clearly shown that monetary reward can drive energy-saving behaviour. Unfortunately however, the effect can be somewhat short-livediv.

So is this surprising? Not really. Psychology has long championed the message that money is not a sustainable motivator, and this holds true with energy conservation behaviour too. Suppliers must therefore look to the other ways discussed previously to maintain engagement with energy-saving technologies and schemes.

Also, let's not forget the power of role models. One motivational theory -- the social learning theory -- champions the use of modelling in which mental processes are developed by observing the behaviour of others and subsequently employing them in real life. In practise this might mean that in the UK, we could see the cast of EastEnders turning down their thermostats before heading out to the Queen Vic. The hope being, of course, that consumers all do the same.

The rollout of smart meters provides a real opportunity for suppliers, via their consumers, to deliver the energy-saving benefits this country needs. Yet there is much more to this than the logistical and operational challenge of installing smart meters in UK homes. To deliver the savings needed, suppliers must understand what drives the behaviour of their consumers. Psychological insight can help with this by exposing what it is that motivates us, but energy suppliers must apply these teachings in a way that drives behavioural change. This could be via the provision of continuous feedback via graphical displays, the use of role models (be they television celebrities or peers and friends), the use of personalised messaging and tailored home-energy audits, or by the championing of the financial rewards for using less energy.

Whatever the approach adopted, in order to succeed where President Carter failed, we need to better understand our consumers. At the same time, the underlying message is clear: smart meters alone do not reduce energy consumption, people do.


i. Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C., Rothengatter, T. (2007). The effect of tailored information, goal setting, and tailored feedback on household energy use, energy-related behaviors, and behavioral antecedents. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27, 265-276

ii. Goldstein, I, L., Ford, K. (2001). Training In Organisations. Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc

iii. Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C., Rothengatter, T. (2005). A review of intervention studies aimed at household energy conservation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 273-291

iv. Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C., Rothengatter, T. (2005). A review of intervention studies aimed at household energy conservation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 273-291 Kantola, S, J., Syme, G, J., Campbell, N, A. (1984). Cognitive Dissonance and Energy Conservation. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 69 (3), 416-421.


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