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‘Public interest’ use of household smart meter energy data

Sustainability First launched a short ‘research challenge’ last year, together with the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol and the academic network, TEDDINET.  We asked two university researchers – Simon Elam from UCL and Jess Britton from Exeter University- to look at the ‘public interest’ agenda for smart meter data.

Most current thinking about smart data is focused on commercial innovation by energy companies and others - but we may miss an opportunity. For the first time, in every home, accurate time-related energy-use data will be recorded at the meter (half-hourly for electricity and daily for gas).  Smart meter data could clearly serve a wider ‘public interest’ agenda in many helpful ways. But, with much effort rightly being devoted to getting the smart-meter roll-out ‘right’, a wider public benefit dimension does not currently get the attention it deserves.  That is why we launched our challenge.

We have now published the excellent papers that Simon and Jess have written.  Here is a taster of their findings.

What might an improved energy usage evidence base deliver for different actors?

  • Better targeted advice - nationally, locally - for consumers & households.
  • For government: improvements to energy models and demand-side inputs, to evidence-based energy policy; to better targeted interventions. Better evaluation of outcomes: for the fuel poor, for energy efficiency, heat, self-generation, including the distributional impacts of policy.
  • For energy companies, networks and regulators: better-targeted investment for smart grid and smart energy systems and community energy projects.
  • For cities: better evidence to support local energy schemes, to target energy efficiency, to plan and develop infrastructure for electric cars, for heat, for housing development.
  • Better-targeted local services for the elderly, the fuel poor, young families, students; and better-informed partnerships - with social landlords, the health agencies.
  • Better insights from academic research and the not-for-profit sector.

Today’s official data for energy consumption remains fairly basic, being derived from customers’ anonymised annual consumption figures. Local-level data, and some limited half-hourly data from trials, is also available. Today’s annual consumption data can also link to other data sets: for example, on the housing stock, demographic or deprivation data.

But for the future, half-hourly energy-use data offers significant new analytical power in terms of the public interest uses touched on above.

So what issues would gaining access to this data raise?  Success of the smart meter roll-out depends – critically - on customer trust.  For this reason, the Government has rightly given a great deal of attention to deciding who can access smart meter data and how.  The Data Access and Privacy Framework  puts the consumer in control of their data.  For example, energy suppliers are entitled to use one-month aggregate data for billing, but, if the supplier wants to access half-hourly data stored on the meter, their customer must give an explicit ‘opt-in’ consent.

Others can also access smart meter data, but likewise with individual customer ‘opt-in’ consent.  Organisations who may wish to use this data for wider ‘public benefit’ analysis may need quite sophisticated systems and be well-resourced, if they are to be able to meet the requirements to be a ‘trusted’ data-user with the Data Communications Company and to manage the process of obtaining individual customer consents. For those without a direct interface with energy-customers already, this might prove quite a big step.

These challenges for making use of smart meter data for ‘public interest’ purposes are not insuperable.  But customer trust in the smart meter roll out is essential and it is right that the privacy hurdle is set high.  Equally, the wider public policy benefits from the use of smart meter data could well be significant.  The opportunity is there. Much could be done with data aggregated to a level that ensures customer privacy.  We hope that our roundtable held in mid-March made a good start in raising the importance of harnessing smart meter data to develop better public policy. This is a conversation we will wish to continue, not least to help inform  the 2018 review of the privacy rule-set.

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