Even the lure of lower energy bills isn’t enough to change human habits if it means figuring out a new gadget.
The plague that affected ancient VCRs, early alarm clocks and TV remote controls is now a worry for so-called smart meters — high-tech measuring devices that the European Commission and many national regulators say are key to giving consumers control over their energy use and speeding the EU’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Smart meters are intended to provide frequent, even hourly, readings of a household’s energy consumption and share information about fluctuating energy prices.
The features are meant to drive people to use electricity when it’s cheaper — often a sign of abundant power on the grid — and use less during peak times. Consumers could choose to do their laundry at night when power prices are lower, instead of in the morning or weekend afternoons.
Some people can’t be bothered. For many, it’s too much effort to stay on top of smart meter readings and deploy the data to time daily chores. The Swedish Energy Agency found that people care more about getting their laundry done on time than cutting energy costs. All 5.3 million electricity consumers in the country have had smart meters since 2009.
“It’s like if you ask someone buying bread about their consumption of flour — you are not interested in how much flour you use, you are just interested in the bread,” said Fredrik Lundström, smart grid program manager at the Swedish agency. “The majority of people don’t want to bother about how they use the appliances and lights.”
Jørgen Christensen, chief innovation officer at the Danish Energy Association, who also steers work on the EU-funded smart grid research project called EcoGrid, said the Swedish findings didn’t surprise him.
“A lot of consumption in the household is for comfort,” Christensen said. “You would not change your consumption in the evening for cooking. You would not stop watching a series on TV in the evening, because the value of your activities is much higher than the savings you get by delaying them.”
The attitude toward smart meters could become a hurdle for the Commission: It wants all EU countries to replace at least 80 percent of existing electricity meters with them by 2020 — a €45 billion investment — to cut emissions by up to 9 percent and annual household energy consumption by similar amounts.
Countries including Finland already have 100 percent of electricity consumers using smart meters, as of 2013. Others, such as Denmark, plan to do so before 2020, although countries only have to do so if a national assessment finds the switch makes economic sense. But the picture across the EU varies: Germany, Latvia or Slovakia are aiming to replace less than a quarter of existing meters.
Provisions in the Commission’s proposed overhaul of the EU’s electricity market design, part of the wider Clean Energy Package, would give every customer the right to request a smart meter. The Parliament and the Council are expected to begin negotiations on those files in the next months.
“We would like to see consumers and prosumers take full ownership of the energy transition,” Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president in charge of energy union, said in a recent speech filled with tech buzzwords extolling smart meters, blockchain technology and peer-to-peer networks that would “not only support our human needs but also encourage human behavioral change.”
On-the-ground experts are skeptical.
Peter Söderström, asset development manager with Vattenfall Distribution in Sweden, said his company ran a smart meter pilot project over the last five years that showed “customers really need a lot of help to understand how they can act.”
Consumers were given access to an app that allowed them to control their consumption manually or set it on an automatic mode.
“Typically in the first weeks or first months, there was a lot of tweaking, but over time we saw that automatic is fine,” Söderström said. “At first things are exciting, but tweaking your consumption every day is not something people want to do.”
“The last thing we want to do is to build up false hopes and over-emphasize the benefits that they can get,” Söderström said.
The incompatibility between human nature and smart meters is part of a wider problem engineers are trying to tackle when designing smart technology. Take for example the so-called rebound effect, which found that often energy consumption goes up in newly renovated houses with smart gadgets because people want to boost their comfort.
Rather than turning people into smart meter experts, the answer may be to better integrate the technology with smart appliances that figure out when to turn themselves on without human interference.
Take electric cars: Christensen said people can program them to charge overnight, when power prices are lower. There are also smart heat pumps, often used in Scandinavian countries, or air conditioning systems that can connect to Wi-Fi and download power prices to optimize consumption based on a user’s preference.
Tweaking those sources of energy use will have more of an effect than micromanaging when to do laundry.
“I’m not proposing you should schedule when you should vacuum clean or turn on the dishwasher,” Söderström said. “Cooling, heating, warm water — that’s where savings come from.”
Another option is making an agreement with a third party, known as an aggregator, which has access to a consumer’s smart meter data and can optimize a household’s energy use for a fee. That’s the model researchers used in the second phase of the EU-wide EcoGrid smart grids project that Christensen works on.
The Commission also proposed rules for the rights and responsibilities of aggregators in the Clean Energy Package.
“If a service provider can do it for you, then people are ready to pay for it,” Lundström said. “At the end of day you get benefits through that service. It’s more attractive.”
As the EU’s energy system becomes more complex, renewable energy will play a bigger role and tools will become more digitized. Hands-off options that allow outside companies or intelligent meters to make the tough decisions will become increasingly attractive to harried consumers.
“It might not be the consumer with the application adapting to a new system but a system adapting to a new customer,” Lundström said.
This article is part of Raw Power, a series on Europe’s clean energy revolution.