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12 September 2016updated 05 Aug 2021 9:14am

Taking control of energy: local authorities and communities at the forefront of Britain’s smart energy revolution

By Sacha Deshmukh

An energy revolution is underway across Britain as smart meters are installed in every home, by every energy supplier, and at no extra cost to consumers.  

For the first time, consumers will see what they’re spending on gas and electricity, in near real-time and in pounds and pence.  No more estimated bills, no more meter readers.

This digitisation of one of the last analogue industries isn’t happening a minute too soon: few of us would imagine having to call our mobile phone provider to tell them how many texts we’d sent this month, and we’d raise an eyebrow if we were given an estimated bill at the supermarket checkout.

For the millions of people using expensive prepay key meters, the transformation will be even more profound.  Smart meters can operate in both credit or prepay mode, and new ways to top-up are being introduced which means no more charging up the key at inconvenient times at a shop.  

More than 3.5 million smart meters have already been upgraded in homes around the country, and eight in ten people who’ve already got their smart meter say they would recommend them to others.  A similar proportion are already using their smart meter to help them use less energy.

The experience for us all will be transformational.  But going beyond the individual experience, how could smart technologies interacting with smart energy data empower entire communities – and what role could local authorities play?  Could the smart meter rollout be a spur for local communities to innovate for greater control over their energy?

Before the centralisation of the energy sector in the middle of the last century, energy was very much a local affair. 

The world’s first public electricity supply company, created in 1881 in Surrey to power streetlights and local shops and businesses, was locally led. At the time, this was the embodiment of modernity.

Today, it’s possible we could be seeing a shift back to local production and distribution of energy, responsive to local needs – powered by smart technologies and using smarter, time-responsive tariffs.  The potential benefits are substantial.

Smart energy technology enables the integration of more community scale renewable energy generation, and underpins distributed storage technologies.  Earlier this year, the National Infrastructure Commission estimated that a smart energy grid will mean a cheaper and more reliable supply, and could save British consumers up to £8 billion a year by 2030.

The Centre for Economic and Business Research recently conducted the first detailed, city-level picture of future energy needs in British cities: Powering future citiesThe report showed that by 2035, electricity demand in some cities will rise on average by 19 per cent compared to 2015.

This is a substantial rise, and the biggest increases will be driven by domestic demand, underlining the importance of providing consumers and communities with the means to get their gas and electricity under control.

Many cities are already responding to this challenge.

In Nottingham, for instance, through the Nottingham Energy Partnership, a fuel poverty and climate change charity, the city is delivering energy efficiency projects that cut energy bills and carbon emissions. It has recently secured funding for a ground breaking solar battery storage project and has also just brought Nottinghamshire’s first community-owned solar farm to fruition.

Liverpool is also increasingly engaged with energy. The council has plans to set up its own energy company, known as the Liverpool LECCy, to help local residents save on their energy bills, improve home energy efficiency across the city and enable the council to develop innovative energy services for the benefit of local residents.

In Scotland, Glasgow City Council is also making strides to lead a local energy revolution. In the words of council leader, Frank McAveety: “Glasgow has undergone a significant transformation in the past three years since the launch of the Future City – Glasgow project. From deployment of intelligent streetlights to innovative sensors, data and technology have helped make our city a better place to live, work and play.  We recognised early on that cutting emissions, reducing overheads and addressing fuel poverty, were crucial to ensuring that our vision of becoming a smarter and more sustainable city could be realised.  Smart meters have played an important role, making energy data visible and accessible to allow innovative new products and services to become available.”

These local leaders are empowering individuals and communities with smart technology.  Smart meters are an essential part of this digital transformation, by opening up a whole new realm of opportunity for consumers to adopt innovative energy technologies and connected ‘internet of things’ devices and services. From in home storage batteries to roof-fitted solar panels and electric vehicles.

Smart meters will re-engage local communities with their energy use, by making it visible in a language consumers understand – pounds and pence, over time.  New time of use tariffs, enabled by smart meters will empower consumers and local residents to play an active role in managing demand, consuming energy when availability is high – for example when the sun is shining or the wind blowing – linking local energy production with local energy use.

With the deployment of smart meters, such tariffs could also help our energy infrastructure become more efficient and robust, by giving local energy network operators greater visibility as to where and when peaks and troughs in energy generation demand are likely to happen.

There are many international examples of smarter cities across the world. In Groningen, a mid-sized town in the Netherlands, local authorities are trialling an approach that enables households to choose the sources of energy they use, including buying it from their neighbours who may have solar panels. The trial also offers them the option to sell unused energy back to the grid or to other residents.

Here, smart meters are playing an important role to engage consumers with local energy by providing real time information, and giving more choices.  The result is a smarter and greener city.

With smart meters, soon such opportunities will be easily accessible to many more consumers – helping to take the local energy revolution all the way into the home.  

As cities, towns and communities across Britain think about the opportunities of greater devolution, energy will be an important part of the mix.  It starts with a smart meter in every home.

We will be discussing these fascinating developments at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool with the New Statesman.  I hope we’ll see you there. 

26th September – Room 13 ACC

12.45 – 2.00pm

Joe Anderson OBE, Mayor of Liverpool

Frank McAveety, Leader of Glasgow City Council

Chris Blake, Director, The Green Valleys (community energy)

Maria Wardrobe, Director, National Energy Action 

Claire Maugham, Director of Policy and Communications, Smart Energy GB

Smart Energy GB is the voice of the smart meter rollout. It’s our task to help everyone in Great Britain understand smart meters, the national rollout and how to use their new meters to get gas and electricity under control.