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Smart grids: the consumer’s-eye-view

October 13, 2020
A Pangea SI Expert

What does a smart grid look like from a consumer’s point of view?

The answer might be not much: a buzzword you hear on the news, a smart meter you put in the drawer, and that’s about it. To the typical domestic energy consumer, the vast majority of what goes on in the energy network has traditionally been pretty invisible.

But the smart grid transition means exceptions to that rule are growing. The dividing line between what’s a technical problem for engineers and what’s an issue that directly involves consumers is getting more blurred by the month. In discussions of the systemic changes in the next decade, it’s common to hear claims like ‘the biggest change of all is that consumers will go from being on the edge of the energy system to being at its heart’, as a blog from Innovate UK put it last year.

In that case, it’s worth taking a step back to consider what it actually means for the consumer to find themselves so crucial to energy system innovation all of a sudden. The potential benefit of a greener, cheaper energy system is clear. Realising that benefit, though, depends on engagement and trust. Historically those have been in short supply.

The challenges posed by going green

An example of the information and perception challenges we could start to see is the recent talk there’s been of the possibility of Ofgem, the UK regulator, allowing domestic customers to choose the capacity for their home electricity connection. Thinking of getting an EV? No problem, just remember you’ll need to recalculate your network payment or risk a penalty.

This could improve cost reflectiveness and stimulate a market for new solutions. Several European countries do it already. In the UK it’s still just a hypothetical. But even the possibility provides a timely reminder that for consumers, being at the heart of a smart energy system isn’t only a matter of greater empowerment and choice. It also means hard decisions and novel concepts, in a market already not renowned for navigability.

That’s just one example among many coming down the line. This is why it’s worth trying to see the smart grid from a consumer’s-eye-view. Instead of just a string of separate technical issues breaking in on the public awareness here and there, there’s a question of new behaviours, new habits, new choices, and potentially a whole new perspective on the energy system.

Understanding the Consumer Journey

A useful tool here is the Smart Grid Maturity Model, which has been widely used in the UK and internationally since it was developed by US researchers in 2011. In the very first of its five levels of smart grid development, one of the key metrics is that ‘a vision of the future grid is being communicated to customers (e.g., by explaining smart grid benefits and describing potential use case scenarios)’. Would the UK situation going into 2020 pass that baseline test?

Doing so means putting together a clear and trustworthy narrative. There are no shortage of industry roadmaps. What there isn’t is one that starts from this consumer angle. This roadmap would need to cover three aspects: technologies, relationships, and culture.

Technology is the one you hear the most about. Whether it’s through an electric car, a heat pump or a solar panel, the uptake of new technology means more consumers will be finding out why network innovation matters. Household spending will move from petrol to the electricity bill. Charging-point availability will turn up in local or national politics. Selling energy back to the grid will be more common. New technology will start to give the smart grid physical form, and that form won’t stop at the meter.

Relations as a Result of a Smart Grid

Second in this consumer-side roadmap is the new relations that the smart grid will activate. It’s been much discussed that we might start to see more interaction between domestic customers and their DNOs, whether that’s direct or through intermediaries. This could mean new tariff structures, or appliance automation, but it doesn’t stop there. One UK DNO has had some success recently turning local peak reduction into a mobile game.

But the smart grid will also open up other new relationships around energy. A few years from now, UK domestic consumers might have the choice to sign up to a virtual power plant, connect their solar panels to locally-owned storage, or trade peak capacity with their neighbours using blockchain. Community energy might go mainstream, and even if it doesn’t, the idea that local relationships might have something to do with your energy bills is one that more consumers will get used to.

Consumers Instigating Cultural Change

That connects to the third theme of this roadmap, the context of culture change that the smart grid transition fits into. The UK is officially facing a climate emergency. Attitudes are changing even faster than technologies, and any conversations around consumer involvement in the network will need to focus on not just the what but the why.

At the same time, there’s also a huge expansion predicted in the usage of smart devices. As far as many consumers are concerned, their experience of smart grid and of smart home technology could essentially fade into each other, while also overlapping with urgent green priorities like improving home energy efficiency.

The intersections between technology, relationships and culture make for a complicated picture. But the joined-up consumer perspective is too important to ignore for anyone working to make smart grids a reality. Wherever you stand in the industry, good decisions depend on opening up the narrative to consumers.

“Academics and policy makers talk about social acceptance, the way public projects stand or fall by public attitudes. Really, though, ‘acceptance’ doesn’t go far enough. Smart grids are a non-negotiable infrastructure for decarbonisation, and the biggest shake-up of the UK’s electricity network since the grid went high voltage in the 50s. Consumers, who will be more involved than ever, should be leading the way.”
Speak to the leading smart grid Expert who wrote this article Expert Bio Expand

Expert Bio:
Expert is currently a freelance Consumer policy consultant advising on policy research, campaigning and stakeholder engagement. Projects included social responsibility in the energy network sector and how to make digital ID fair.

Key roles and experiences include:

Expert in policy and advocacy for a U.K. network of independent charities that give free, confidential information and advice to assist people with money, legal, consumer and other issues. Roles included:

Policy manager – Energy regulation
Analysis and advocacy representing the consumer interest in GB energy regulation. Worked on innovation and making meaningful stakeholder engagement. Published reports on smart grids and regulatory transparency.

Policy advocate – Smart and Sustainable Energy
Making the case for a fair deal for future energy consumers, to Government and energy companies – Particularly on smart grids, smart meters and demand-side response.

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