Smart and happy meters

How can consumers learn to love (or at least engage with) their smart meters?

Our Smart and Happy Meters project is designed to shed light on what will motivate domestic consumers to engage willingly with smart-meter-enabled services aimed at improving power system management. Delivered in partnership with The Happy City Initiative and Triangle Design (see below), principal funding for the project comes from the Technology Strategy Board under its ‘Smart Power Distribution and Demand’ small projects stream.

We’re particularly interested in consumer reactions to: (a) prospects of having their energy use controlled ‘remotely’ or ‘automatically’ (compared with user-led response), and; (b) motivators to take-up and participate in a service based on financial rewards compared with non-financial rewards known to enhance wellbeing.  Hence ‘Smart and Happy’ meters!  More information is available in the project briefing (click here to download). 

In order to test consumer reactions to various smart meter engagement concepts (download the PDF to see the concepts), we held a series of focus groups towards the end of November last year. We tested three ideas that were developed in the earlier workshop with industry and energy experts. These were:

  1. Automation: the idea of a ‘slider’ that determines how much automation you allow your property to receive, with the potential to both save you and the national grid energy and increase efficiency 
  2. Community rewards: the introduction of a reward structure whereby energy companies rewarded community groups for their members reducing energy use at home, e.g. similar to Tesco’s vouchers for schools
  3. Gamification: the use of an online gaming platform to compare personal household energy use against others and receive ‘rewards’ in the form of points or unlocking new aspects/levels of the game 

These ideas of automation, rewards and feedback were slowly introduced to the groups to allow them to discuss their attitudes towards each as well as voice any concerns. The three concepts were then introduced in more detail and specific feedback was captured. The idea was also to see whether financial or non-financial (happiness, wellbeing) rewards were more popular forms of incentivising energy behaviour change. 

Results:

The automation slider was the most popular concept amongst all of the groups. It was the most visually engaging and simplistic, offering consumers some aspect of control. The introduction of a ‘user override’ setting and fair payment for participation seemed to increase its acceptance.

Although the idea of community rewards inevitably raised issues surrounding the meaning of ‘community’, it did receive support. However this support was dependent upon the economic climate and consumers having a choice of how much they could contribute to the community pot. There was also some concern that this reward scheme would allow the energy supplier to take credit for their socially responsible behaviour rather than the householders.

Respondents felt that gamification could be a powerful learning tool in schools, but not necessarily in the home. This was mainly down to the time that would be involved for engagement out of school hours that were deemed more important for other activities. A concern was also raised that engaging with a game such as this would actually require electricity use, which seemed contradictory to the point of the game.

Transcripts of the groups’ discussions were analysed and portions of text grouped into different themes that stood out. These included, in no particular order:

  • Feedback from energy suppliers as to how savings could be made by changing certain behaviours was quite a popular concept;
  • There was an importance placed on the choice of reward structure and the level of engagement each household chose to have with their smart meter;
  • Financial rewards were, in general, much more preferable to non-financial rewards as they were easier to comprehend;
  • Many participants expressed a mistrust in suppliers, in terms of their perceived financial priorities and poor customer care;
  • However, trust in and support for smart meters in general was quite good, especially after their true purpose and potential was explained;
  • There was concern that certain groups of the population would be excluded from engaging with smart meters and receiving the subsequent rewards;
  • The perceived time required to engage properly with smart meters was considered an inconvenience;
  • …thus is was important to have a clear reward structure in place;
  • ...as well as an understanding of the benefits of smart meter engagement.

The following summarises some of the key benefits of this project: 

Economic

The implementation of smart meters will introduce a number of efficiencies that will save energy companies and network operators money. The project has shown that there is potential to engage householders further if they feel they are being paid a fair price for their involvement. 

Social 

(a) Householders are willing to give up control of their appliances if they could potentially override this despite the additional cost. In reality householders are unlikely to override the device if they know it will cost them a lot, but the option to do so made them more comfortable with the proposition. 

(b) There is potential for a community to come together to cut down their energy usage and offer each other support. However, people wanted the ability to pledge a percentage of their savings and felt that there needed to be a connection between them and the community recipient. This could be local or national but it needed to be relevant to them. 

Environmental

Less or more efficient energy usage means less is energy wasted, lower carbon emissions, and thus less pollution. 


What do we mean by non financial rewards?
The project aims to test ‘non-financial’ rewards that enhance our happiness and well-being. The rewards themselves will be considered in conjunction with the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’. The five ways were developed by the new economics foundation (nef) as a set of evidence-based public mental-health messages aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of the whole population. Here's a very brief summary of these ways.

1) Connect…
With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

2) Be active…
Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

3) Take notice…
Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

4) Keep learning…
Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.

5) Give…
Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.


More about our project partners

The Happy City Initiative is a small not-for-profit organisation that helps people and their communities to focus on happiness. See www.happycity.org.uk or contact Mike Zeidler mike@happycity.org.uk.

Triangle Design is a design agency with a solid reputation, committed to adding value. With a fresh, strategic and open mind, it offers brand activation, experiential and creative communications. See www.triangledesign.biz or contact Dave Forman dave@triangledesign.biz


Related documents and links

Sustainability First, 2010. Smart Tariffs and Household Demand Response for Great Britain;

CSE, 2011. Smart metering programme consumer review for Which?;

DECC, 2012. Quantitative Research into Public Awareness, Attitudes, and Experience of Smart Meters. Research by Ipsos Mori

VaasaETT, 2012. The potential of smart meter enabled programs to increase energy and systems efficiency: a mass pilot comparison. Funded by European Smart Metering Industry Group

NEF, 2012. Measuring well-being. A guide for practitioners

Energy Networks Association, 2012. Smart Demand Response: A discussion paper


 

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