The Visible Energy Trial: Insights from Qualitative Interviews

In December 2009, the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced its intention to roll-out ‘smart meters’, accompanied by free standing real-time displays, to all UK householders by 2020. As well as paving the way to a ‘smarter’ grid able to handle large amounts of micro-generation and improved demand management, this decision is justified by the assertion that: “These meters will provide consumers with real time information on their electricity use to help them control consumption, save money and reduce emissions” (DECC, 2009, 71). Previous studies on the provision of feedback to energy consumers support this assertion, suggesting it can help to realise savings of between 5 and 15% annually, depending on the quality and type of feedback provided (Burgess and Nye, 20082).

Several large scale trials into the effectiveness of various interventions into domestic energy use are ongoing, such as the Energy Demand Research Project in the UK (see OFGEM 20093) however, as yet very little is known about the processes through which these kinds of savings are achieved. Katzev and Johnson’s (1987) observation that “our understanding of how feedback does or does not work remains unexplored or untested” (in Darby, 2006, 7, emphasis in original4) still largely applies. Burgess and Nye (2008) describe domestic energy use as ‘doubly-invisible’. It is invisible first, because people are unaware of how much energy they use overall (e.g. it is obscured by billing and payment systems) and second, because they do not know how the energy they use connects with different aspects of their lifestyle (e.g. it is an inconspicuous form of consumption).

Enabling individuals to see and understand their energy use patterns is therefore seen as critical in efforts to reduce energy consumption overall – whether motivated by financial or environmental reasons. Real time displays, or smart energy monitors, attempt to serve precisely this function – to provide immediate feedback and information on their energy use in order to help them reduce it. Understanding how people actually use these devices and the feedback they provide, how they relate this to their everyday lives and practices, and how (or if) this leads to changes in energy consumption patterns represent the core concerns of this paper.

Throughout 2008-2009, Carbon Connections in partnership with Green Energy Options (GEO), Sys Consulting Ltd, and the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia ran a trial of a range of smart energy monitoring devices in 275 households in the East of England. As part of this ‘Visible Energy Trial’ (VET), and in addition to social surveys at strategic points throughout the trial’s duration, 15 semi-structured interviews were conducted with trial participants in an attempt to address these concerns. This report focuses solely on explicating the findings of these interviews.

Hargreaves, T.