Can Smart Meters Help the Environment?
Smart meters give homeowners real-time visibility of how much energy they're using. It's hoped that having this visibility will make them more conscious and lower their energy usage which, in turn, will lower carbon emissions. For this reason, smart meters are being rolled out nationwide (although they're not compulsory).
In theory, a smart meter in every home would reduce energy usage and help the environment but is it that straightforward?
How do smart meters work?
Smart meters give you real-time visibility of how much energy is being used around your home at any one time. Energy suppliers are sent this data directly thanks to wireless technology, meaning that you'll be getting a much more accurate bill.
Smart meters are made up of 2 parts, the smart meter itself which sends electricity and gas readings to the suppliers and the in-home display (IHD) which allows you to monitor your energy usage.
For more information on how smart meters work, read our guide to What is a Smart Meter?
Smart meter in-home display
The key part of the smart meter system, from where homeowners are concerned is the in-home display (IHD).
The IHD gives homeowners a near real-time display of their energy usage. It's thought that getting visibility of this data will make homeowners more conscious about their energy usage and notice areas where they could cut down.
The in-home display will allow you to see:
- Real-time energy usage
- Amount of energy used in the previous hour, week and month
- Costs attached to your energy usage
- Whether your electricity use is high, medium or low
- Carbon dioxide emissions (in some cases)
If you have a pre-payment meter then you'll also be able to see how much credit you have left, any emergency credit, debt balance and whether your credit is running low.
Can smart meters help the environment?
Smart meters are being rolled out to homes across the UK as they have potential to play a big role in lowering energy demand. One of the main reasons for that is down to their potential for reducing energy usage.
- Displays real-time energy usage to make consumers more conscious
- Real-time data delivered to suppliers which can help to over over-generation
- Show homeowners which appliances aren't efficient
- No need for someone to drive to your property to take a manual reading, lowering vehicle emissions
It's thought that by giving homeowners clear visibility of their energy usage they might become more conscious of how they use appliances. This would decrease the demand for electricity on a national scale – helping the environment and reducing energy bills.
By rolling out smart meters, energy suppliers could also see the benefit too. As smart meters deliver live data, they will be able to more accurately meet demand without over delivering, reducing energy waste. As this data is delivered wirelessly, eliminating the need for somebody to travel to your property to take a meter reading – most likely in a van – emissions are saved.
For homeowners, the key part of the smart meter is the in-home display (IHD). This is a small digital device that displays how much energy is being used, the cost and, in some cases, how much carbon dioxide is being produced.
While these are very much short-term solutions, a smart meter rollout would also bring long-term benefits with it too. Smart meters in homes nationwide would create a flexible energy system, which would lead to electricity being generated in a much more sustainable manner – reducing carbon emissions as a result.
Smart Energy GB, the company leading the campaign rolling out smart meters, state that if every home in the UK got a smart meter then enough energy would be saved to power every home in Aberdeen, Cardiff and Manchester for a year.
Lower energy demand is good for the environment?
Electricity generation takes many forms. The primary source for a number of years has been the burning of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, all of which emit carbon into the atmosphere. However, the use of renewable energy sources has been on the rise.
In 2019, wind, solar, nuclear and hydro accounted for 48.5% of the UK's power generation. This was higher than fossil fuels, which sat at 43%. Using renewable energy sources doesn't emit carbon into the atmosphere but there's still a long way to go before our National Grid can be considered 'green'.
So while renewables are on the rise, even passing fossil fuels, when it comes to power generation, UK electricity generation is still carbon intensive. Lowering demand for energy is one route to lowering carbon emissions from energy generation and smart meters could have a huge role to play.
Making energy usage more visible to consumers could help to encourage more conscious behaviour when it comes to powering appliances.
Ultimately, however, for homeowners to really cut their carbon footprint, the electricity must be generated from renewable energy sources. In the UK, the majority of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, a process that releases carbon into the atmosphere.
What are the challenges facing smart meters?
Rolling out smart meters to homes across the UK and expecting homeowners to change their energy habits accordingly isn't a straightforward process. The in-home display does a great job of displaying near real-time energy usage but whether that's enough to influence energy usage is another matter.
The smart meter rollout hasn't been without its challenges either. All homes were supposed to have been offered a smart meter by 2020 but this has now been pushed back to 2024.
Additionally, according to uSwitch, around a third of homes with a smart meter have encountered some kind of issue. These problems range from the in-home display not working, no longer working after switching supplier and even increased energy bills. For these reasons there's a growing scepticism from homeowners about how worthwhile they actually are.
Smart meter benefits
On top of helping to reduce the environmental impact of the energy industry, smart meters can potentially benefit your home in a number of ways:
- Visibility of your energy usage
- More accurate bills
- No need for a manual meter reading
- Increased data to back green mortgages
Having more visibility over how much energy you're using, alongside more accurate energy bills, can help to lower your bills and save you money.
Could I benefit from lower energy bills?
Lower energy usage isn't only better for the environment but your bills too – by using less you'll be paying less (depending on your tariff). According to a survey by Smart Energy GB over 85% of smart meter owners have reduced their energy consumption.
The uSwitch survey we highlighted earlier discovered that 29% of homes have cut their energy bills thanks to having a smart meter. Plus, as many as two-thirds of homeowners have become more aware of the energy usage.
Homes with electric vehicle charging points or a solar battery system will be able to take the benefits even further. Smart meters will be able to automatically store energy when it's at its cheapest which you can then use during peak hours when rates are higher.
Green mortgages and smart meters
Green mortgages incentivise homeowners to make energy efficient improvements to their property in return for lower mortgage rates. The idea is still in its infancy but smart meters could help to make them more widely available.
The data collected by smart meters is precious. Smart meters enable monitoring and verification of how effective energy efficient measures taken by a home have been. This data will give further support to green mortgages.
In time, having a more efficient household could mean a higher property value.
Smart meter rollout
The aim of the smart meter rollout in the UK was for all energy suppliers to offer their customers a smart meter by 2020. They weren't rolled out in time and this deadline has now been pushed back to 2024. It's worth noting that having a smart meter isn't compulsory; your supplier will offer you one but homeowners don't have to agree.
The Minister for Climate Change, Ian Duncan, has said that the replacing of conventional gas and electricity meters is vital and would support the UK's transition to becoming carbon neutral: "We are proposing strict yearly installation targets for suppliers from 2021. This will deliver even greater benefits for households and reduce emissions."
Smart meter costs
Smart meters have no upfront cost attached to them. Instead, all costs (including maintenance) are paid for through energy bills. This is the same method for both conventional meters and smart meters.
So, can smart meters help the environment?
There's currently a disconnect between smart meters and the energy system. Traditional meters can't communicate with suppliers but smart meters can change that to create a more flexible, well informed National Grid.
Ultimately, there's no guarantee that smart meters will have a major impact on the energy habits of homeowners. A clear visual display of near real-time energy usage should help to increase awareness but whether that influences change is down to the individual homeowner.
Where smart meters can really come into their own is on the data side of things. Suppliers will get a much clearer idea of nationwide energy usage and plan their generation accordingly. This in itself could help to lower carbon emissions and keep the UK on track to reach net-zero by 2050.
There's no doubt that a smart electricity grid is the route to a lower carbon economy and rolling out smart meters is the first step in that journey.