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Publications / Blogs

We can’t reach Net Zero without being Smart

Ahead of chairing Wednesday’s panel session at COP26 – hosted at Energy UK & Renewable UK’s Energy Transition Hub – our Head of Smart Metering, Daisy Cross explains why we can’t let smart meters become a missing piece in the Net Zero puzzle   

It wouldn’t be an original statement to say that the eyes of the world on the UK right now as it hosts COP 26, but it is certainly accurate. The onus on the host nation to lead the way ahead of the event has manifested itself with our country setting itself some of the most ambitious emissions reductions targets of any major economy. The UK is committed to cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 on 1990 levels – which now incorporates a pledge to decarbonise power generation by the same deadline.

The Prime Minister is now urging other nations to show similar ambition and so, as you’d expect, much of the focus of the event is on global commitments and how countries and continents and alliances are responding to the challenge of leaving our planet habitable for future generations.

Such geopolitical considerations are obviously crucial but if we are to reach Net Zero and deliver on these pledges we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a lot of the required changes must quite literally take place closer to home. Saying that our world-leading decarbonisation efforts result from us doing the ‘easy’ bit – the switch to low carbon generation – is possibly overegging it. But following suit in adapting our homes and transport is undoubtedly a harder part of the transition – in part because it relies on individuals and businesses taking action.

And as many commentators from the Climate Change Committee and beyond have noted, ambitions are great but delivering on them is a far more time-consuming and onerous matter. While the issue of consumer resistance has featured prominently in the some of the coverage around decarbonising domestic heating, for example, a bigger issue might well be

the lack of awareness or knowledge amongst those who might be willing but need to know why it matters or how to go about it.

Numerous surveys have revealed a knowledge gap among consumers, which is perfectly understandable. Research from the likes of the Zero Carbon Business Partnership – a coalition of small business representatives and generators – has found that SMEs, despite saying they wanted to make their businesses less carbon-intensive, are unsure where to start and have no time to research a net zero strategy for themselves.

And yet millions of owned, rented and local authority homes and business will need to become more energy efficient and heated with alternatives to gas boilers, while drivers who live or work in these properties must make the shift to electric vehicles.

In order to make this switch we will need a flexible network that will encourage us to spread our usage more evenly throughout the day – and send signals to the network to enable better demand management. The tool in customers’ homes that will ensure they can contribute to, and benefit from, this switch is their smart meter – and we need to start shouting about this.   

This is what we’ll be talking about at the panel discussion I’m chairing at the Energy Transition Hub this week.

There isn’t much point in talking about time of use tariffs and the savings they could bring or charging your EV overnight as a cost-effective way to refuel, store energy and even potentially to sell it back to the grid or any of the innovative new services suppliers can offer in the future, without also acknowledging the importance of completing the smart meter rollout. 

We’ve long known about the central role flexibility must play in the future energy system but the recent turmoil with the accompanying focus on security of supply has underlined why it’s so important to adapt in order to make the most of a very different generation mix – and to keep costs down for customers.

And we’re talking a lot of costs – The Climate Change Committee’s analysis puts the costs of delivering Net Zero by 2050 at up to £16 billion higher each year without the flexibility enabled by smart meters.

Energy companies, supported by Smart Energy GB, have made a clear link between smart and Net Zero when promoting smart to their customers, and climate concerns are central to the proposition.

But nearly half of customers are yet to accept a smart meter – in the majority of cases due to indifference or apathy. The full benefits of smart can only come with a near complete rollout and full digitisation enabling accurate and up the minute measurement of how much energy we are using and when.

There are doubtless customers out there who just don’t like smart meters but it’s more likely that some just don’t see why it matters. And with a voluntary opt-in approach, that can be the end of the conversation for many. We need help in driving home the benefits of smart to customers and, at a time when customers are understandably worried about rising energy bills, then there couldn’t be a better time to promote the virtues of a gadget that tracks your usage.

While the Government has cautiously outlined plans to look at embedding smart as a requirement in related policies, and included smart in campaigns like the small business campaign the Prime Minister launched last May, public support for the smart programme, linking it to the smart system and Net Zero and Green Recovery, would be powerful. COP26 will be talking about bigger issues in a geographic sense – but we need to show individual customers why and how they can contribute.

Maybe it’s because smart meters aren’t as new as heat pumps or EVs or other new tech. Maybe it’s because the challenges of the rollout have created some reticence. But government, industry and others with a voice should make sure we’re talking about smart meters when we talk about tech.

BEIS is rightly continuing to set suppliers ambitious installation targets and, despite technical challenges and a global pandemic, the programme is moving steadily towards the halfway point. There is more we as an industry can do to improve systems and processes and how we communicate with our customers. Suppliers will keep plugging away, but will never meet the levels of smart installations necessary if customers aren’t able to see what’s in it for them – and this requires everyone to throw their weight behind it.