Co-producing smart energy data and behaviours – opportunities and challenges: A Panel Discussion

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2014, London

Wonderful, well-balanced panel!” – a delegate

TEDDINET hosted a Panel Discussion at the 2014’s main geographer’s conference, the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2014 in London. Sponsored by the Energy Geographies Working Group, the session brought together 5 experts to debate ‘the co-production of smart energy data and behaviours’. The panellists included two members of the TEDDINET Advisory Panel Michael Harrison (DECC) and Roger Street (UKCIP) and 3 leading academics; Sarah Darby (ECI, Oxford), Tom Hargreaves (UEA) and Nazmiye Balta-Ozkan (PSI/Cranfield). Panelists were asked to address the following questions:

After an introduction by the Chair, Dan van der Horst (Edinburgh), panelists shared their thoughts on the questions posed to them, leading into open discussion with delegates.

Michael Harrison, reflected on his 8 years of experience in smart meter policy making, noting the political interests at play. Discussing knowledge, Michael referred to the need for formal knowledge of energy savings, as evidence to support the accountability of smart meter roll outs across the EU, where an average of 3% savings are forecast. This is particularly in light of the fast-paced development of technology, about which data is needed in order to know what works best in different situations. Michael was keen to note however the need for more engagement with consumer, or bottom-up, knowledge, given that the installation of smart meters represents a huge intervention in people’s lives. He was keen to think about how the learning householders/users engage with during this process could be understood and used for policy.

Roger Street concentrated on the need go beyond the provision of information (from smart meters), to consider how that information is used in decision-making, as the link between these two elements has been demonstrated to be tenuous at best. He argued for the need to first understand people’s decision-making processes and their values, so that information provision (such as from smart meters) can be correctly targeted – a hard challenge, given the diversity of people. Roger suggested that people need to be assured of the credibility of the information or evidence presented, as well as its utility and relevance. He discussed issues of co-production, including the potential difference in timeframes of different stakeholders; the need to set roles, responsibilities, goals and expectations early on; to understand potential commitments; to keep people engaged; to build trust; and importantly to engage in co-dissemination.

Sarah Darby suggested that ICT technologies can be a distraction in ensuring substantive energy reductions (depending on definitions), given that smart meters cannot for example help to insulate a poorly insulated house. ICT technologies can however increase the visibility of energy, thus they are potentially useful in ensuring ‘some’ reduction. Sarah was keen to highlight the relational nature of smart meters, drawing attention to the need to think not only of the technology itself, but also the installer, the particular consumer, the housing stock etc., in achieving any gains in energy reduction. When thinking about potential benefits, she admitted that this depended on the system, but that some people are in a better position than others to do something with the information provided by smart meters. For example, tenants on low incomes may have a low capacity, which calls in to question the need for third party assistance in helping such groups during the smart meter roll out. Sarah importantly drew attention to the dis-benefits (or costs) of smart meters, from the energy consumed by networked devices in standby. With regards knowledge production, Sarah thought this uneven, with industry currently the most well-resourced, and calling for greater involvement of social scientists and citizen science.

Nazmiye Balta-Ozkan thought ICT technologies can be part of the solution to energy demand reduction and help consumers to understand their energy use, however noted the large variation in scope and duration of potential savings. She mentioned consumer concerns over safety and the desire to control actions taken in their homes, concluding with the need to consider integrated smart systems i.e. beyond just smart meters. Nazmiye considered that benefits from smart meters will accrue more to industry than consumers, given there is no system in place to ensure savings to utilities through smart meter infrastructure are passed on to customers. She thought knowledge in this field is being produced in a piecemeal way and is not currently set up to understand the linkages between technology, society and institutions – thus she called for more interdisciplinary training to fill this gap.

Tom Hargreaves thought that ICT technologies are decidedly not essential but potentially quite useful in reducing energy demand, given that this may be achieved in the absence of technology. He pointed out, as had Sarah earlier, that ICT technologies can in fact increase energy demand. He went on to point out that whilst these technologies can help in shifting demand, there was a need to think about the practices associated with energy demand and to tackle these as a way to change energy use. As did Nazmiye, Tom considered utilities to benefit the most from smart meters, given they can make the most of the data produced, as well as other actors and organisations that can use that data to bring products to market – products and entities which may not yet even exist. With regards to knowledge, Tom argued the need to move beyond formal explicit trials generating knowledge, to think instead about the relational, inescapable, always occurring knowledge creation that goes on in relation to energy. He drew on the work of Yolande Strengers and her conception of a ‘smart energy utopia’ as exemplifying particular forms of participation and expertise – that which favours formal, scientific understandings – thus shutting out alternative forms of engagement. He borrowed the term Sarah had used before, of the ‘high priesthood’, to indicate those who hold the favoured technical knowledge. Tom concluded by warning that the promotion of particular energy-related activities as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is problematic, and that we need to consider the other aspects of life associated with energy in everyday living.

The Open discussion led to additional questions over the need for ICT technologies to make energy information ‘intelligible’; definitions of ‘smart’ and ‘smart homes’; whether transitions in energy systems are occurring, either wholly or in part; the narrow conception of ‘knowledge’ in the field; how research in the field is used and applied; user-profiles; resistance to smart meters; and use of data by government. There were differences of opinion which led to some excellent debate (plus wine and nibbles), much appreciated by those present.

Overall, it would appear that with regards the co-production of smart energy data and behaviours, ICTs and smart meters should be central in our investigations – however so too should consumers, installers, utilities, institutional arrangements, housing stock, politics, practices, engagement, relations, knowledge, and alternatives. These things represent both opportunities and challenges.