Lived experience of fuel poverty: research

Qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.

6. Smart meters

6.1 Introduction

The UK Government’s rollout will mean that all households and businesses will be offered a smart meter by end of 2020[24]. The Energy Saving Trust highlights two key benefits of smart meters[25]:

  • they enable users to see when they are using the most energy and how much it is costing, meaning they can adapt energy use and cut down on waste to provide long-term carbon and financial savings.
  • they provide accurate and real-time information about energy use, enabling users to make informed decisions about their energy behaviour.

This chapter explores the extent to which smart meters had an impact on those living in fuel poverty, answering the research question “how are smart meters used in fuel poor households and what is their impact?”

6.2 Use of smart meters

Twelve participants had smart meters. They had all been offered them by suppliers, rather than actively seeking them out. Most users of smart meters recalled having received user guides or manuals that explained how they were used, though participants did not often recall reading these or what specific information they contained.

Those with smart meters described using them to automatically submit meter readings and using the In-Home Display to monitor the amount of energy they were using. However, not everyone discussed both these purposes. Often participants would describe the In-Home Display purpose only and appeared unfamiliar with the automatic meter-submitting function.

In some cases, smart meters were connected to both gas and electricity, while in others they were connected to electricity only. However, even for those with smart meters connected to both gas and electricity, discussions about the use and impacts of smart meters tended to focus on electricity rather than gas.

6.3 Impact of smart meters

There were mixed feelings about the impact of smart meters, with most discussion focusing on the real time information provided on In-Home Displays.

Participants found the In-Home Display useful as it helped them to visualise how much energy they used and to better understand the amount of energy different appliances used. There was often surprise expressed at the amount of energy used by, for example, kettles, dishwashers and washing machines. Those that paid most attention to the In-Home Display tended to be those on prepayment meters, who found it a quick and convenient way of finding out how much energy credit they had left, removing the need to read meters that were difficult to access:

“It makes you more aware of what you're using power wise, you know. Before in the old system, the old meter, it was just a dial and numbers, there was nothing physical, no graph to show you.”

Dean, 35+ no children, Owner, Large urban, EFP and EHR

“If I'm running down, it's there to tell me to top up, but, I never let it go under £10 if I can help it, never, ever….[before] I had actually to go outside and see how much I had left on the gas meter”

Gayle, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, EFP and EHR

Even where In-Home Displays were being used, the extent to which this had contributed to a change in behaviour was limited. However, examples were given of changes in electricity use, for example switching off appliances, boiling less water in the kettle, or using washing machines or dishwashers less frequently. Others described looking at the In-Home Display occasionally, but not feeling the need to change their energy use as they did not consider themselves to be using an excessive amount.

“You notice how much electricity you're using because it's almost like a record or something. It does make you think about how much you’re using, if it's on a bit, why is that on and you realise you’ve left something on”

Morag, 35+ no children, Owner, Large urban, FP and EHR

One participant used their smart meter to help budget monthly electricity use, setting the In-Home Display to show a different coloured light if they exceeded the amount of electricity budgeted. However, given other members of the household were not paying attention to the smart meter display, this had not prevented them from going over budget.

Only a few participants noticed a reduction in their energy bills as a result of smart meters. Even participants who were monitoring their energy use via the In-Home Display and changing their use of appliances accordingly were not clear whether this had actually saved them money.

6.4 Problems with smart meters

Around half of users had experienced problems with their smart meters. Examples were given of smart meters being unable to connect to either the gas or electricity meter, with some suggesting that this was due to poor phone or internet signal. This meant that the smart meter was unable to fulfil its meter-reading function. In these cases, participants were continuing to either manually submit meter readings or receive estimates from their supplier. One participant noted that these problems led them to turn off the In-Home Display.

Smart meters were also perceived to be inaccurate. One participant was charged an unexpectedly high amount by a new supplier and thought that this was down to a mismatch between the meter display and the internal meter – an issue that has since caused them financial difficulties. Another described how the information displayed on his In-Home Display was out of date by two weeks, causing him to question how dependable it was.

Issues with connectivity and perceptions of inaccuracy had led to In-Home Displays being turned off by users, sometimes completely. Others had turned off the In-Home Display simply because they felt it made no difference to their energy use and was therefore viewed as redundant:

“I chucked it in the drawer out the way because it was getting on my nerves… it tells us how much money we use and I sort of say, well what’s the point? If I'm going to use it, I'm going to use it. We don't waste our money.”

Isabel, 35+ no children, Social renter, Other urban/non-remote rural, FP and HER

Among those without a smart meter, there was little appetite to get one. Concerns were raised about their perceived inaccuracy, with participants having heard media or word of mouth stories about smart meters giving incorrect readings which had led customers to be overcharged. Concerns about data privacy and security were also raised as a barrier to getting a smart meter. Again, these tended to be driven by negative media coverage about energy companies having unrestricted access to customer data via smart meters.

6.5 Summary of differences between groups

There were no notable differences in use of, or attitudes towards, smart meters between the main groups of interest to the research. The one exception was that smart meter In-Home Displays tended to be viewed more favourably by prepayment users, a payment method that was more prevalent among those in extreme fuel poverty. These participants liked In-Home Displays because they provided an easy way of showing how much credit they had left on their account.



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