Companies, not consumers, are benefiting from smart meters, say engineers

A survey by the Energy Institute shows energy professionals remain unconvinced that energy data will reduce household bills.

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An annual survey of the UK’s energy engineers has revealed that the vast majority of professionals in the industry believe technological breakthroughs such as the use of big data in energy provision will mainly benefit suppliers, rather than consumers.

Speaking at the Westminster launch of the Energy Institute's annual Energy Barometer survey, the institute's incoming President, Steve Holliday, said “this year’s survey raises home energy alarm bells. There is real concern about how consumers – and the poorest in particular – will fare as the energy transition and data revolution progress.”

With a membership of around 20,000, the Energy Institute is the chartered professional membership body for engineers in the industry.

In recent years the use of big data and data analytics has ballooned in the sector, with power companies using "consumption metrics" and their own data combined with information from the market to flexibly adjust their energy assets according to real-time supply and demand predictions. With a more modern, complex and decentralised electricity system, grid management is increasingly reliant on data for demand and generation forecasts. The wider rollout of smart meters, as well as the growth of "internet of things" (IoT) products, will also provide both users and suppliers with huge amounts of consumption data that allows suppliers to optimise demand.

Last year, a report from the National Audit Office criticised the government’s rollout of smart meters, stating that the programme, run by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was late and mired in escalating costs. The report also highlighted that many of the meters themselves were deficient. “The Department knows that a large proportion of SMETS1 meters currently lose smart functionality after a switch in electricity supplier,” the report said.

For EI’s members, the financial benefits derived from the efficiencies and opportunities opened up by the so-called ‘data revolution’ will flow primarily to energy companies.

The EI survey also found that half of the surveyed energy engineers believe that public pressure is a leading driver of decarbonisation, but that a similar proportion believed that domestic customers would prioritise low bills over low carbon. Most members also said that the benefits of technology need to be promoted better in order for the public to capitalise on available opportunities.

“Technologies that promise a smarter, greener relationship with the energy we all use are advancing at breakneck speed,” Holliday said. “But, with more than 60% of emissions reduction needed for net-zero also requiring some form of behaviour change, poor communication could leave households in the slow lane.

“Ministers and industry leaders need to navigate these uncertainties with great care, to ensure these amazing new technologies deliver on their potential in our homes, for our energy system and the planet.”