The future of energy: smarter technology, smarter behaviour

The future of energy in the UK is complex – it will have a whole host of variables in play.

Philip Sellwood

The future of energy in the UK is complex – it will have a whole host of variables in play. These include the increased uptake of energy saving technologies, electric gadgets, electric vehicles and renewable technologies, the increase in the UK housing stock, how and where we will be getting our energy from and, perhaps most importantly but more difficult to predict, consumer usage behaviour. Whilst most of these variables are hard to predict accurately, there are some that we can control as long as people feel empowered to do so. From our perspective, greater empowerment over our behaviours and how we use technology is how we can all help shape the future of sustainable energy in the UK.

Domestic energy consumption

From the Energy Saving Trust’s research it is clear that changing domestic consumption habits could have a massive impact on the future of energy. The 2012 ‘Powering the Nation’ study revealed the true extent  of how much electricity is being used, and wasted, in the average UK home. The findings revealed some unwelcome surprises which proved we are still getting to grips with domestic electricity use in the home. One of these unwelcome findings was that domestic background energy consumption is much higher than previously estimated – on average households are spending between £50 and £90 a year on appliances on standby.

Ultimately we all need to use less power and be more energy efficient when we are using energy at home.

Technology

One way to offset this expected increase in electricity demand is through the development of smarter technologies and appliances. Smart appliances use power management technology and advanced control features which enables consumers to better manage their energy use. In turn this will lead to reductions in the cost of energy use and lower carbon emissions. This also offers energy companies increased visibility and information about the energy habits of consumers which can help them deliver at times of peak energy demand.

Smart technologies and appliances are set to develop rapidly within the next decade as both consumers and industry attempt to get a firm grip on the amount of energy being consumed within the home. Of those new smart technologies and appliances coming to the market in the next couple of years smart meters with visual displays are likely to take-off significantly, driven by the mass nationwide roll-out from 2014. Smart meters with visual displays will provide households with real-time information on their energy consumption bringing an end to labour intensive, costly and inaccurate billing.

The roll-out of smart meters is designed to provide households with more control over their energy consumption; without this control, consumers and householders will not be empowered to make decisions or take action to be more energy efficient. Enabling consumers to keep track of their energy use within the home means they can be empowered to make any changes accordingly, which in turn can lead to them saving money and reducing emissions in the home.

New technologies and appliances; however, are not necessarily the only answer for those consumers looking to be more energy efficient. Using the latest energy saving technologies needs to be combined with consumers behaving more sustainably in the home whilst being provided with ongoing advice. Without the right advice, new technology will not have the desired impact on energy use and consumption.

Positive actions = further challenges

From the variables that will have an impact on the future of energy in the UK, there are those with many positive benefits associated with them. The increased uptake of electric vehicles and associated renewable technologies will provide low-carbon benefits and reduce our environmental impact. However, with these benefits come fresh challenges to the UK’s energy supply, such as how we can make the necessary infrastructural changes to effect this decarbonisation of the grid.

In the past year the Energy Saving Trust has been undertaking work looking at future energy scenarios taking into account a host of variables and how this will impact on the grid. Whilst we cannot see into the future, we can model a range of scenarios which can help predict the future energy supply in the UK and how the grid can be prepared to deal with these different variables. Even though this will not be 100 per cent accurate, it will provide an evidence base for industry to make appropriate decisions to manage future energy supplies.

Industry responsibility?

A question often asked is where the responsibility for cutting carbon lies. Is it with government, industry or the consumer? Following the ‘Powering the Nation’ report, one of the main calls-to- actions was to industry. We wanted industry to look at the findings from the report and come back with solutions on how they can help consumers achieve greater energy efficiency in the home, whilst developing the most energy efficient products and services for them too.

However, whilst the Energy Saving Trust recognises the importance of industry to cutting carbon, it is strongly argued that this will only be achieved with support from the consumer. Ultimately we are the people that are using electrical gadgets in the home and only people we can get to grips with the extent of our energy-use. If consumers are being provided with the correct information and advice, along with the most energy efficient electrical appliances then there can be no excuse for not acting sustainably in the home.

A positive finding from separate research conducted by the Energy Saving Trust was that there is indeed a consumer appetite to behave more sustainably within the home. 75 per cent of people surveyed are looking for ways to reduce their energy bills, with 65 per cent even going as far to state that now times are harder economically they are more interested than ever before in how to save energy. With statistics as encouraging as these, there is no reason why consumers will not take their fair share of responsibility over the amount of energy they use at home.

Government clearly has an important role to play by developing policies that could fundamentally change the way people think of and use the energy consumed in their home. This, however, can only be achieved based upon research from organisations such as the Energy Saving Trust that help to inform the Government’s insight into domestic energy consumption.

Bleak future?

At the Energy Saving Trust we take a positive approach to dealing with increased energy consumption by trying to find the right solutions to address these issues. Demand for energy in homes across the UK will increase over the next five to ten years. However, rather than dwelling on this eventuality, we need to encourage positive action from industry, consumers and Government to be more energy efficient in the home and behave more sustainably. This will play a vital role in restricting investment demands on the grid during the next two decades.

Pound-for-pound using less energy is significantly cheaper than upgrading the grid to deal with increased energy demand. The challenge remains encouraging and empowering people to behave more sustainably in the home. This can be done through the latest smart technologies and appliances, but there is only so much this will achieve. The key is creating the right balance between developing new technologies and consumers being more energy efficient in the home. If we get this balance right then there’s no reason why there can’t be a cost effective and secure energy future for the UK.