The smart meter roll-out, due to commence in two years’ time, will see around 53 million meters installed in over 30 million households and businesses, making it one of the UK’s largest and most complex technological and consumer change programs.
With government set to invest over £12 billion across the five years of the roll-out’s implementation, there is understandable concern from all involved parties that it remains as free from problems as possible.
Crucial to ensuring that the roll-out runs smoothly is its acceptance by the public, and there are compelling reasons for its acceptance. If consumers can be persuaded to accept smart meters as a motivation for changing their energy usage behavior, the rollout will deliver over £7 billion in net benefits to the public and the energy industry in the long term. An Oxford Economics report published last year claimed that households will save an average £65 a year, as a result of reducing their energy usage due to the greater control and transparency offered by smart meters.
However, according to the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), only around half of UK consumers are actually aware of smart meters, and there’s mixed enthusiasm at the prospect of actually receiving one. But there are steps that can be taken to raise awareness of smart meters and counter any resistance to their installation.
Awareness and acceptance of smart meters can be improved through a carefully targeted campaign of consumer engagement, a tactic often used in national programs. The success of the government-run campaign for the recent digital switchover initiative is a good example of what can be achieved when consumers are fully engaged, as well as of the importance of getting it right first time.
To ensure that the upcoming smart meter roll-out is timely and cost-effective, it might be worth considering the following steps to help ensure that consumers are not only engaged with the initiative, but also feel positive sentiment towards it.
Recent research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has identified a hub in the Midlands and Trans-Pennine Corridor that, due to the continued rise in energy prices, would most benefit from the installation of smart meters. By showing where utility companies should best invest their time and resources in the smart meter roll-out, the study highlights a means of focusing entirely on the consumers’ needs when planning the roll-out strategy.
Government consultation documents highlight the role that housing associations and local authorities can play in placing consumers’ needs first during the roll-out. The general opinion here is that there is a need for local leadership, with support being given to vulnerable householders or those relying on assistance from council services. This can be enhanced by regional authorities partnering with energy companies or delivery agencies to develop plans for deployment on a local level. In addition, active engagement with the affordable housing sector is required for government to actively improve the delivery of help and assistance to vulnerable and fuel-poor consumers across the country.
Assurance and reassurance
Perhaps most important of all, once consumers have bought into the idea of having a smart meter in their home, is the reality of actually having it physically installed.
People are, by nature, generally cautious at the prospect of letting strangers into their home, so the challenges faced by the engineers whose job it is to install the meters themselves should not be underestimated. It’s crucial that smart meter installers have the necessary skill-set to answer any queries that consumers may have when they arrive at their home. Each consumer will have different specific needs – a large family will have very different concerns to a single pensioner, for example -and the installer will need the soft skills necessary to be able to tailor their approach to suit.
This is, perhaps, a small consideration in the wider scheme of things, but offering reassurance and expertise will go a long way to addressing consumer concerns.
The initial roll-out is just the beginning of a long journey for government, energy suppliers and the public alike. But taking steps to ensure that consumers are prioritized, along with their needs and concerns, will lead to more successful engagement.
Once engaged, consumers can be clearly educated as to what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it will benefit them. As a result, the smart meter roll-out should then take place as a smoother, less challenging operation, without the need for further spending on winning hearts and minds.
David Stroud is general manager of EDMI Europe.