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How trailblazers are using smart meters to make the switch to net zero

Buildings can be retrofitted with technology to adapt them for the climate future.

In 2003, when Andy Maybury bought his new house in the Scottish Borders, it was cold and drafty. “We’d be huddled around the gas fire, which was blasting out as much as it could, and our ankles were still cold,” he recalls.

The ex-council house was built in 1964. While it was a decent home for the time, it just wasn’t fit for the 21st century, with its unfilled cavity walls and suspended wooden floor – though a previous owner had at least put in double glazing.

Maybury and his family got to work on renovating the house, starting by filling those cavity walls with insulation. Maybury also put in a ventilation unit, which meant he could draft-proof the house without risking a damp problem.

“The first step in any home project is to reduce your energy need. There’s no point putting in all sorts of [energy] generation and flexibility if you’ve got a very wasteful house,” he says.

After that first year, the family’s gas bill halved. And the house was one of hundreds of a similar design in the neighbourhood, meaning those lessons could be easily applied by others. “We actually ran a project in town through our local Transition Town [part of the Transition Town movement to create sustainable communities], helping people to look at what they could do in their property,” Maybury says.

He was inspired to take his home’s efficiency to the next level by changing the way he used energy.

A smart meter was essential in order to switch to an agile tariff, he explains: “You need the smart meter to record the half-hourly consumption.” Maybury can charge his car overnight, for instance, to take advantage of cheaper energy prices at that time. “Sometimes the price even goes negative, and we get paid for consuming energy,” he says.

His advice for others looking to retrofit their home? Do what you can as soon as you can to maximise the benefits of energy-saving renovations. While some changes take many years to pay back on the original investment, there are immediate benefits, too. “The comfort difference is significant,” he says.

Another tip is to “start with the simple stuff” and have patience. “Don’t think that you can spend six months doing everything and it’ll be a marvellous eco home that will be fit for purpose for the next 20 years. We’ve continued to do stuff over the years. There are still things that I want to do,” he says.

Over in South Wales, Emily Hinshelwood and the community energy charity Awel Aman Tawe have been working to bring an old school building back into use as a community centre.

Awel Aman Tawe launched in the mid-1990s as a response to the unemployment and economic decline that hit the South Wales valleys following the end of coal mining. “We felt that there was a real scope to put money back into the community, but using local resources,” Hinshelwood says. The group built two community-owned wind turbines, which provided the income for it to take on a new project: a community resource centre.

[See also: How smart meters helped a business thrive]

The building, in the village of Cwmgors, had been a school that closed down because there were no longer enough children in the area to sustain it.

“There were loads of protests to keep it open, because it was one of the only community spaces in the village,” Hinshelwood says.

Before the mines closed, the village had shops, a cinema and community facilities. Awel Aman Tawe bought the building in 2018 for just £35,000, but the scale of the challenge was huge. “It was in a really bad state, dry rot everywhere and subsidence. We had to take the floor out, everything had to be stripped back,” says Hinshelwood.

Five years on and the renovation is nearly complete. The centre has 90 kilowatts of solar panels across the roof, a ground source heat pump, cork insulation and is finished in a traditional lime mortar. The building will become a hub for the arts, education and enterprise.

“We’ve got studio spaces, hot-desking spaces, education, facilities, a hall and classrooms. We’ll be moving in the guild of weavers, spinners and dyers,” Hinshelwood explains. The pottery studios even include a solar-powered kiln, blending the preservation of traditional crafts with modern technology.

The building will also be a home for Awel Aman Tawe, and the charity’s solar energy cooperative Egni, as well as a place to educate and showcase sustainable technologies, including smart meters. “We’ve got lots of meters there, because it’s a huge building, there’s all sorts of different meters,” Hinshelwood says.

“We will have an interface that will be done in a reception area, which will show how much energy the solar is generating and how much the wind farms generate.” The smart meters will also display how much energy is being used, on everything from the kiln to charging electric cars. “The activities within the building are aimed towards a transition to a low carbon lifestyle. So, we want people to know how much electricity is being generated and how much has been consumed,” she says.

Now Hinshelwood and Awel Aman Tawe are looking for their next project. One idea is to tackle the empty and boarded up homes in the area. “A lot of young people can’t afford to move out of their parents’ home, and so we were kind of thinking, ‘houses are for sale and people can’t buy them, perhaps we could step in and do them up as low carbon houses, but also rent them out at affordable prices’,” she says. It is their hope that their model of local investment to create low-carbon communities, facilitated by smart technology, will help the villages thrive once more.

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[See also: How smart meters can boost Britain’s energy resilience]