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Smart meters don’t make us any smarter about energy use

Is information like this going to stop you putting the kettle on?

Energy bills are higher on the political agenda than ever before and we are constantly being told that devices such as smart meters will help us make better decisions and take control of the energy we use. But evidence shows that these new technologies are not making us more savvy.

Research suggests energy use depends on more than knowing how much electricity it takes to boil a kettle.

A nation of buffoons?

A recent survey by the Energy Saving Trust found half of all UK householders believe it is cheaper to leave their heating on all day than to turn it up or down as required. As Peter Robinson put it in the Guardian, we appear to be “a nation of buffoons who can’t work thermostats”.

There is some evidence that “folk theories” and everyday understandings about how heating and air conditioning systems work are often mistaken. Thermostats, for example, are frequently used as on-off switches. And if something as fundamental as a central heating system is so easily misunderstood, more complex technologies such as heat pumps or solar panels are likely to be even more challenging.

Making energy visible

Energy-saving myths and a lack of understanding about how our own systems work show we are not as informed as we could be about how to save money and resources. The most common method of promoting energy literacy is to provide information through labels on products and buildings or via leaflets, websites, advertising campaigns and lessons in schools.

Another approach is to make energy visible through smart meters. The idea here is that real time displays tell people exactly how much energy they are using at any one moment, and prompt them to cut back. The hope is that when households literally see how much energy a tumble dryer uses, they will not run it so often, or for so long.

The government’s Energy Efficiency Strategy exemplifies this vision of the energy literate consumer when it sets the goal of “empowering households to take control of their energy use” through smart meters.

But this vision is based on a simple and implausible equation: if people know about energy, they will use less of it.

The problem is that people are never just using energy. They are cooking dinner or washing clothes, consuming energy as they go. They might be reading or chatting in a room that is well lit and warm, and that calls for energy consumption in the background.

Either way, it is impossible to treat energy as something that can be stripped out from the detail of daily life. Helping people understand their energy consumption, as if this were a topic in its own right, is therefore of limited value. Knowing just how much energy is used in making tea, or in doing the laundry will not transform established habits and practices that are embedded in the fabric of social life as we know it today.

Systems and flows

Another way to think about energy demand is to see the individual, their routines, their home, and all the objects within it, as making up a system. Energy flows through this system in the form of heat and power. Shaping and controlling these flows depends on various forms of know-how, sometimes held by people, but sometimes embedded in objects, such as heating controls.

Flows of energy and of know-how are constantly changing as new technologies emerge and as habits shift over time.

While some of us still know how to light a coal fire with carefully rolled spills of newspaper, others know how to turn the heating on remotely using a phone app.

Then there are the different types of know-how needed to keep warm. It’s not just about making the boiler work, it is also a matter of knowing about clothing, adjusting routines to suit the changing seasons and social conventions like keeping the house at a “comfortable” 22°C.

Knowing how much energy is being used is not central to the conduct of daily life but know-how like this is crucial. What matters more than looking at energy consumption as such is understanding how patterns of cooking, washing and keeping warm take the form they do and how energy flows through these systems.

Knowing about the energy that the cooker consumes is unlikely to prevent people from making a Sunday roast. Nor is knowledge of the energy bill the same as knowing how to make oneself comfortable. In the longer run, energy demand depends on how we live our lives, on the habits we have and the technologies that sustain them.

The idea that, as energy under secretary Sandip Verma put it, smart meters are “key to putting control in the hands of the consumers” is widely shared. But the kind of knowledge that meters provide is narrow in scope and of limited relevance to the routines and rhythms of everyday life.

If we are to understand how people engage with energy systems, it is not the meter that needs to get smarter, but our understanding of what energy is for and how it is used.

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