Citizens at the heart of the European energy transition: how can we put smart meters at the service of users?​

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In June 2019, I was invited by the ENABLE.EU project to talk about consumer perspectives, smart meters and measures to bridge the gap between consumer needs and European intentions. My role was to bring the voice of consumers to the table and get back to the essentials, namely that attention to people' needs and personalised service are essential to enable the development and acceptance of technologies by all and for all.

The new Energy Union strategy and the Clean Energy for All set of directives adopted between 2018 and 2019 promise to put the consumer “at the centre of the market”. More sustainable energy consumption patterns and behaviours should allow the transition to a low-carbon economy. However, studies show that until now, consumers may only think about their energy consumption and use for 9 minutes a year, probably when it is time to pay their bills. It is therefore questionable whether the European Commission’s intentions are compatible with the lack of consumer interest. 

On June 21, 2019, I was invited by the ENABLE.EU research team and the Jacques Delors Institute Energy Centre to the premises of Enedis, the leading French electricity DSO. The meeting focused on consumer perspectives, smart meters and measures to bridge the gap between consumer needs and European intentions. My role was to bring the voice of consumers to the table and get back to the essentials, namely that attention to people’ needs and personalised service are essential to enable the development and acceptance of technologies by all and for all.

A technology-oriented approach that is sometimes far from the essential consumer needs 

The ENABLE.EU research project focuses on key factors driving consumer choice and behaviour in the transport, heating and cooling and electricity sectors, intending to develop effective policy measures that trigger more sustainable energy use. Many tools and services are also available on the market to help consumers make this transition. The gender issue, for example, is critical, although undervalued. At the meeting organised by ENABLE.EU on 21 June 2019, Karina Standal of CICERO (ENABLE.EU) discussed how households make the decision to become prosumers and the role that gender plays in this decision. Although women are, in the vast majority of cases, the primary users of the most energy-intensive domestic appliances, it is often men who are in charge of the family contracts. Most of the services offered are not designed for women, and few companies provide non-gendered or attractive services for different audiences. 

From a political point of view, I pointed out that despite the European Commission’s ambitions to put consumers at the centre of the Energy Union, there is still no emphasis on consumers’ needs and priorities in the institutions’ organisation charts. For example, there is no working group or unit dedicated to heating or cooling issues and even less attention to the problem of energy efficiency needs and the social and climate emergency of renovating leaky homes. Similarly, consumer rights and priorities are totally neglected by the Member States in the draft national energy and climate plans submitted to the European Commission.

The European Commission’s approach is highly techno-centred, which seems paradoxical compared to the approach suggesting that consumers should occupy a prominent place in the smart network. The technology could make users completely passive. For example, the transmission of an electronic message can generate an automatic reaction, including through appropriate devices and appliances (the washing machine will respond to the signal and start the wash). However, consumers are encouraged to participate actively in the network (demand-response system, demand aggregation, participation in energy communities, etc.), but not everyone has the means or the desire to participate.


The issue of smart meters 

Smart grids and meters will only become so when consumers use them smartly, which means they must have the tools to understand the situation. Household needs and priorities vary and evolve over time. Gender, age, family situation, energy poverty, etc. have an impact on the way people consume and behave. Human interactions are difficult to schedule or even anticipate. The priority of the actors involved (technologies, energy service companies, distributors, conventional or alternative suppliers, etc.) should therefore be to make life easier for users, in particular by accompanying and combining smart meters (which are generally installed in basements or outside buildings) with indoor displays (which are readable in the house) or apps on phones. This should be particularly the case for vulnerable and energy-poor consumers, but dedicated initiatives are lacking. In France, the 2015 Energy Transition Act provides, for example, that households eligible for the energy cheque must be equipped with an indoor display in kWh and euros free of charge. But the implementing decree is still missing.

As regards raising awareness and saving energy, smart meters should be considered as a device that provides information and advice to the consumer. It should also be designed to help households change their behaviour. For example, by allowing the display to provide feedback and guidance, the possibility of easily obtaining energy services on the market. But this is only possible if households have a way to monitor their use in real-time.

At present, the benefits of smart meters for consumers are therefore limited. From a financial point of view, according to a report published in 2018 in Great Britain, people with smart meters should save only £11 per year, much less than initially expected. It should be possible to combine smart meters with relevant electro-domestic appliances, capable of reacting to signals… but is it really worth replacing appliances in good working conditions and further increasing the number of technologies? The proliferation of all types of appliances (household appliances, audiovisual, digital devices) has increased electricity consumption in our homes by a factor of 6, despite European standards on energy efficiency. Indeed, energy efficiency, eco-gestures and energy efficiency have a more significant impact on demand reduction than smart meters, and for example, the Famille à Energie positive project conducted in several territories in France has shown that an average of 12% savings on energy consumption, or about 200 euros per year, per household, without financial investment.

Particular attention should be paid to vulnerable and fuel-poor households. For them, saving energy is not an end in itself, it is their comfort and quality of life that must be prioritised. People living in poverty make trade-offs and are generally energy-efficient consumers because they have few appliances. For them, the priority would rather be to fight against the phenomenon of leaky homes and to improve their general wellbeing. A rebound effect is not excluded when their living conditions improve. 


Considering consumer feedback

The acceptance of smart meters by users implies that companies take responsibility for potential problems and risks and acknowledge any complaints expressed at any level in the process. Regardless of the country, the installation of a smart meter has sometimes revealed a malfunction of the old meter, which no longer recorded all the consumption. The lack of clear, accurate and consistent information provided to citizens has an impact on consumer attitudes towards these meters. If things go wrong, people need to know where to go. With the entanglement of technologies and services, it can become complicated to understand who to contact if there is a problem. For example, when an invoice increases, it may be because of the energy supplier or contract, a regulatory shift, a third party offering energy or technology management services. Some of these problems do not necessarily fall within the scope of the competence of energy ombudsmen and dispute settlement bodies.

Suppliers and distributors must be even more vigilant against the risk of misassignment or unexpected termination and must seek to ensure that they are in the best interests of consumers. In France, the number of identified meter errors represents 5% of the disputes investigated by the Ombudsman, twice as many as the previous year. Companies should carefully consider the diagnostic tools they have put in place and how to improve customer service. Overall, the lack of responsiveness shown by suppliers to alert their customers can be a significant drawback: suppliers now have a clear picture of how consumption is evolving. They should, therefore, also become more active and immediately inform households of unforeseen events that may impact household consumption and bills. 

Finally, data protection remains a source of anxiety. It is necessary to be able to answer privacy questions (Who has access to my data? How to ensure that I am not subjected to unwanted harassment, profiling and marketing activities?) and security (How to protect meters and smart networks from hackers? Are the relevant technical standards sufficiently robust?). In France, on the Internet portal where retailers put their consumption data online, households should be able to check the names of companies that have accessed it with or without their permission. But who takes the time to look at it?

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And here a recap (in French) by TouteL’Europe: Transition écologique : comment aider les Européens à maîtriser leur consommation d’énergie ?

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