Smart meters, energy justice and cutting carbon emissions.

Kelly is a PhD research student who is looking into the future of smart meters in the UK, and how policy around their introduction will impact on their effectiveness for creating energy justice and reducing carbon output.

“Prior to this research I spent ten years working for the UK energy ombudsman,” says Kelly. “Dealing with people’s problems on a daily basis gave me a clear insight into the material impact of energy policies and practices in the real world. I studied the smart meter rollout programme for my master’s dissertation and this was where I began to understand that there was a gap between government intention and people’s real-world use of the meters.

“The government considered that if people have the necessary information, then they can change the way they consume energy to be more energy efficient. For example, consumers could shift tariffs to use renewables such as solar and wind energy when they’re available or switch off a particular task. While this does have some impact on consumption habits, the impact is limited, as the reality of energy use is bound up in social process and everyday practices.

“For example, running a washing machine is governed by multiple factors. These include what time of day to run the machine, how often to wash items, how many separate washes need to be done, what temperature and cycle to wash at and so forth. It’s not simply a matter of cost and tariffs.

“For my PhD research, I’m creating a workshop to explore the reality of how people meet energy infrastructure in the real world and how this may impact energy choices. I’m inviting the views and experiences of those who would normally be marginalised from participating in decisions about future energy infrastructures. End users tend not to be involved in the early development of technology products, but as technology is shaped by use, those affected by that tech need to be involved from the outset if it’s to be successful.

“In order to reduce consumption and create affordability, we need to understand people’s wider everyday practices surrounding interaction with smart meters and the wider infrastructure that they connect to. So, the first part of my workshop gathers meter stories from participants – things like billing problems, faulty meters, getting used to reading the new meter. This process helps the participants see the meter as a tangible part of the system they’re using.

“Following on from this is a mapping process to make visible the infrastructure of energy use – something that we normally don’t tend to think about. So, starting at the meter, we can look at what feeds into it in terms of everyday tasks and the energy-consuming devices we use to carry out those tasks. We’ll be able to see where people’s maps stop and start and find out what’s important to them. How, why and when energy is consumed.

“For the third part of the workshop, participants will discuss issues of fairness in potential smart meter future scenarios. This discussion, based on the range of participant circumstances and differing energy use situations, will help in considering the energy justice aspects of smart meters, creating a foundation for ideas and policies to mitigate energy inequality.

“The data produced during these workshops will then be analysed to consider what policies might be put in place to fulfil the aims of smart meters, given the real-world scenarios in which we use energy. These findings will be presented to policy and decision makers, with recommendations for policy development to mitigate energy injustices and carbon footprint.”

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