Consumer-friendly devices used to monitor home energy consumption are only starting to gain traction. In the U.S., companies like Tendril (shown below), Greenbox and EnergyHub have pioneered systems that allow homeowners to easily view how much energy they are using and how much it is costing them. Even larger companies like Google, Microsoft, and Intel are developing energy management dashboards that will allow laymen users to view this data on their computers, phones and television screens.But in Britain, major utilities are banding together to block legislation that would require the installation of these systems in citizens’ homes. Under the banner of the Energy Retail Association (ERA), a formidable lobbying group, British Gas, EDF Energy, npower and others are specifically protesting the enforced use of wireless, handheld devices that display exactly what homeowners’ energy is costing them in real time and that compare energy consumption of various appliances. Each device is said to cost the equivalent of $25.
The utilities’ argument is that they want to reserve the right to deliver energy consumption to their customers in ways of their choosing. For example, some have said they’d prefer to communicate it via email or mobile text messages. Others say they’d be happy to provide a similar energy management system, but would like to control the display design to best meet the needs of their customers.
The consumer groups backing the legislation argue that the devices could significantly cut the amount of energy people are using, and save them a great deal of money on their fuel bills. So far, ERA has shied away from saying that the 5 to 15 percent the displays might trim from customer energy bills could mean an annual loss of up to $5.3 billion in revenue for the utility companies it represents (assuming each of Britain’s 24 million households shaves the predicted average of $214 off their yearly bills).
The British government already passed legislation requiring the installation of smart meters — meters that tap into mobile phone networks to wirelessly transmit data between utilities and consumers — in every home by 2020. Those in support of the home energy monitors argue that revamped meters won’t be enough to change people’s consumption habits. There needs to be a layer of technology interpreting how the data impacts their wallets, they say.
Perhaps for this reason, the same utilities objecting to the bill have been more than happy to roll out smart meters — after all, it saves them the cost of sending around meter readers, an estimated amount of $505 million a year, according to the London Times.
In the U.S., the backlash against home energy data displays hasn’t been as visible. In fact, many utilities have applied for stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the explicit purpose of installing home energy monitors for consumer use in tandem with smart meters. And many startups like Tendril, working to make energy consumption information even more user friendly, have the backing of strong corporate partners like General Electric working to make them a reality.
Perhaps the government incentive structure is more favorable to the idea here than it is in Britain, convincing utilities that it is in their financial and public image interest to make the change. This points to a larger shift in utility strategy — namely, the decoupling of profit from the amount of energy their customers actually use. In this model, rates are keyed up and down to hit revenue targets, freeing companies to be compensated based on the quality of service — a metric that could include energy efficiency efforts, outage prevention, and renewable energy options.