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Public perception and engagement issues

What are the main public perception issues around smart metering and managing smart energy data?

Visions of a smart city
Most of the UK public is in the dark when it comes to smart cities according to recent research by YouGov and Arqiva[1]. In an online survey 96% of participants were not aware of any smart city initiatives being run by their local city council in the last year. 29% thought that the greatest benefit of a ‘connected city’ would be a better living environment (particularly linked to transport), but 23% were unclear on any one main benefit. Nearly half those surveyed thought that smart cities were 5 years away.

There are already a number of smart city initiatives germinating in the UK[2]. For example Newcastle University has developed an energy storage test bed with a microgrid in which developers can test the hardware and software for smart grids and energy storage. The Bristol is Open initiative has data from wirelessly-linked sensors in city-wide locations that relate to energy, air quality and traffic flows. Academics and entrepreneurs are using this machine-to-machine communication to develop prototypes for smart city applications and services.

Awareness of smart metering roll out
The public lack of knowledge about smart city initiatives may relate to the UK’s limited roll-out to date of smart meters. With an estimated 170-180 million smart meters to be installed in EU-27 countries by 2020, the UK total is currently around 1 million[3]. As the British Foundation stage of trials and pilot projects closes, in the transition to the wider roll-out smart meters will predominantly start to be installed from 2016, with a peak in installation expected in 2019.

Around 18% of people in the UK know what a smart meter is, with young people being the most informed and interested.[4] DECC research in 2014[5] indicated that 60% of bill payers were aware of smart meters, and 9% had a smart meter. However householders often confuse the IHD with the smart meter, so it’s likely that only 3% of householders had a smart meter. Other DECC research identified that non-smart meter owners might be familiar with the concept of smart meters but may not really know what is involved. For example a smart meter was thought to be like a smart phone/car/TV – more of a marketing thing. [6]

In the early stage of smart meter roll-out in 2014, a third of UK households supported the roll-out, with only 15% against it. Roughly half of the households that are aware of smart meters would like to have one.[4].

For the EU countries leading on smart metering - Italy, Sweden, Germany and Denmark - consumer engagement is increasingly coming into focus. Trials have predominantly engaged with self-selecting volunteers, and wider public engagement is utilising financial and environmental motivations to engage with a broader participant base. There has been a high level of consumer scepticism. Some of the obstacles encountered have been:

  • Technical: lack of interoperability and standards;
  • Regulatory: uncertainty over roles and responsibilities in new smart grid applications;
  • Economic: uncertainty over the sharing of costs and benefits and consequently over new business models;
  • Social: consumer resistance to participating in trials.

This touches on a few of the UK public concerns on the smart meter roll-out, and on further engagement with smart metering technologies.

Concerns about smart meter roll-out
The major issues about the roll-out are[7]:

  • Costs and its impact on bills
  • Uncertainty over the benefits of smart meters
  • Health issues
  • Data protection and privacy

Cost of smart meters, and uncertainty over the benefits of smart meters
Many of these public concerns are underpinned by suspicions about smart meters and where the roll-out had initiated from. A CMA report[8] highlighted that in the decade since 2004, in real terms average domestic electricity prices have increased by 75% and gas prices by 125%. People are questioning what benefits the energy suppliers are getting from the smart meter roll-out, and what’s in it for them.[9] In a climate of customers subsidising energy technologies and efficiency measures via their bills, the arrival of ‘another innovation’ can generate public wariness as to if/when they’ll bear the cost. The price of the UK smart meter roll-out has been estimated at £11 billion with a net benefit overall to consumers of £5.73 billion and to energy suppliers of £8.26 billion.[10]

There is a deep mistrust of energy suppliers (51% of the British public do not trust any energy suppliers). This is impeding the smart meter roll-out and further impacts on customer engagement, for example in the public’s willingness to engage in shifting demand via Time of Use (ToU) tariffs or in adopting demand responsive technologies like heating systems or appliances that operate at off peak times. (insert correct repeat ref Buchanan et al)

Health issues Insert photo Mr Smarty Pants

Groups such as Stop Smart Meters (UK) have concerns around the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and radio frequencies(RFs) emitted by smart meters.[11] They are claimed to have direct effects like fatigue, sleep disturbance, heart palpitations, dizziness and nausea, and indirect effects like cancer, infertility and DNA damage. Research presented by Stop Smart Meters (UK) highlights that many studies have shown biological effects at radiation levels below that recommended by the ICNIRP [International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection]. They particularly object to the wireless technology employed by smart metering, and suggest a precautionary approach to exposure to this sort of radiation especially by children. However there is strong evidence from Public Health England (PHE) and the Institution of Engineering Technology's Biological Effects Policy Advisory Group (BEPAG) that the balance of research to date suggests that current guidelines regarding low-level exposure to radio waves are correct and that smart meter exposures fall well within these guidelines. For example exposure of the public to radio frequencies from a smart meter are small compared to other radio frequency applications (e.g.thousands of times lower than that from a mobile phone) and very small compared to recommended levels. Radio frequencies have been ranked as a possible group 2B human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation (IARC). There is no call for any reclassification. The benefits of radio frequencies needs to be assessed alongside any risks, and it must be born in mind that other commonly encountered group 2B human carcinogens include alcoholic drinks, coffee, shift working, surgical implants and petrol exhaust fumes. In the Netherlands public health concerns were addressed by whether smart meter communications systems in the home were turned on or off.

Data protection and privacy
Roll-outs in the US faced considerable opposition due to public concerns about data protection and privacy. For this reason DECC has been proactive from an early stage at addressing these concerns. Since March 2013 energy suppliers can only collect domestic energy data more than once a day with consent.[12] They can also only collect information that they need on energy use or energy-using appliances (with consent), as well as complying with existing Data Protection legislation. The DCC is the intermediary organisation which handles all data from smart meters, and liaises with energy suppliers, network operators and other relevant organisations to provide data access with permission. It operates under the Smart Meter Communication Licence, regulated by Ofgem, which also scrutinises its costs and revenues to ensure value for money. Under the licence, the DCC must also comply with the Smart Energy Code (SEC), as must all energy suppliers, network operators and other relevant parties that want to use DCC services.

The extent of concern about privacy issues in the UK does not appear to be high. British Gas smart metering trials conducted in 2013[13] found that with reassurance 94% of households were not concerned about data collection. Privacy seems to be more of an issue for older age groups (especially for those aged 45-54 years) rather than the 18-34 years age group.[14] Research from 2012 [15] suggested that a main public concern was about data being used for unsolicited marketing, and that there was little understanding of what Data Protection actually involved. Only those with a specific interest in technology were concerned about data security in relation to smart meters. Energy consumption data wasn't regarded as sensitive information. There was some consumer questioning of why energy suppliers would want more than monthly energy usage data, which indicates a need to inform consumers about the financial and environmental benefits of the metering upgrade.

Consumers have the option to opt out of having a smart meter in the UK, given the resistance that mandatory roll-out met in other countries. In US health and privacy issues on smart metering resulted in opposition e.g. a smart meter moratorium, police accompanying installers to prevent interference with installation, and consumers not being at home repeatedly. This highlighted the need for consumer and political/local engagement before roll out. This has been dealt with in the US and the Netherlands by allowing opt out, or of putting consumers that refuse a smart meter on a 'delay' installation list. They often opt in later on.

In California consumers who opt out of having a smart meter pay extra charges to cover the cost to the supplier of reading their meter manually. It is unclear whether this might also occur in the UK. There is not enough information at present for suppliers as to what is considered acceptable by DECC and Ofgem on the supplier obligation to 'take all reasonable steps' to encourage householders to install a smart meter.[7]

What are the main public engagement issues around smart metering and managing smart energy data?

Motivations and barriers to engagement with smart meters

The major motivations perceived by consumers about engagement with smart meters are:(insert correct repeat ref Buchanan et al)

  1. Control over energy costs
  2. Access to information about energy use for reducing energy waste and tariff comparison purposes
  3. Opportunity to save money
  4. Accurate bills
  5. Maintenance/enhancement of personal comfort
  6. Having a reliable energy supply.

Other benefits mentioned include:[16] choosing to use energy when it's cheapest, energy suppliers knowing when you've lost power, and creating a smarter energy sector.

For smart Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) customers the biggest benefits are seen as greater access to information and better energy management, especially by 18-34 year olds. Smart PAYG was found to appeal most to current prepayment meter customers. 48% of households in the South West (and the same percentage in the UK) were interested in smart PAYG. 59% of 18-34 year olds expressed an interest.[4]

The barriers identified to smart meters have included:

  1. Consumer apathy
  2. Mistrust of energy suppliers
  3. Data protection and privacy
  4. The installation process

And in thinking about demand side response:

  1. Loss of autonomy and control
  2. Disruption to household routines

2013 research [14] found that 49% of 18-34 year olds were concerned about the smart meter installation process, whereas only a quarter of other age groups found this an issue. This has not been identified as a concern in other studies.

Householder apathy or active blocking of smart meter installation can occur. For example suppliers are finding that the roll-out is hampered due to access issues. Less than 50% of households with smart meter installation appointments actually complete the install. (Insert correct parliament Consumer Concerns repeat ref). Besides mistrust of energy suppliers, this may in part be due to the unclear pattern of installation and the slide in the roll-out timetable.

The smart meter roll-out can also be interpreted as another 'supplier marketing ploy'. The shifting timescales of the roll-out presents an opportunity to optimise on householder engagement, by promoting knowledge of the personal and wider advantages of smart metering technologies to householders. [17]

Engagement mega-trends

In 2013 Smart Meter Consumer Delivery Body engagement strategy determined four major trends that would impact on the consumer engagement with smart meters. These have been explored during Foundation stage smart metering trials and will continue to be explored and addressed during the wider roll-out.
1) Distrust in corporations. This can be combated through involvement of trusted charities, local authorities and other third party messengers.
2) Networked Britain. This presents an opportunity to communicate on energy use through web and phone-based technologies.
3) Squeezed Britain. Reducing energy waste through advice before, during and after the installation process. EDF smart meter trials found that proactive engagement with householders before installation is needed, as is energy advice and technical information during installation.(Insert correct repeat ref Consumer Concerns)
4) Understand my priorities. Tailoring messages to householder-specific needs.

Research has also shown that framing the message and approach is key to maximise consumer engagement. At a broad scale, emphasising the cost of not reducing emissions and the benefits of doing so produces positive results.[18] Goulden et al (2013)[19] have also identified two 'personas' of energy use and the smart grid - energy consumer and energy citizen. People flip between these roles often. For the smart grid to achieve its full potential the frame of Energy Citizen is more apt. Smart meter and IHD deployment, unless accompanied with greater user engagement, could be a missed opportunity. Change brought about through community energy schemes and microgeneration is fantastic, but conflict and distrust still exists, so local tailored solutions are required. There is a need for institutional framing away from current model of passive energy consumer responding to price influences, where the agent of change is the technology. The frame of active energy citizen, managing consumption (and generation) i.e. were consumer choice is not reified is more apt, where co-construction/management is more apparent. The two frames can overlap and coexist. The intelligence of users and technology are needed for optimal smart grid operation and to maximise CO2 reductions.


Technical issues

Loss of functionality if decide to switch. SMETS compliance and repeated installs. Installation in dumb mode.

Promoting engagement with smart metering technology and maximising positive impacts at install

Pre-installation: Present SM as a positive option, rather than an imposition or 'fit and forget'. Make most of social norms, friends and family, to increase energy literacy. Target early adopters. During installation: Critical role of installers and that they have time to share information. Implications: installers informed about customers beforehand, script, comms training, supplier has workforce incentives to give sufficient time for installs.

Individual, community and business engagement and behaviour change opportunities

Research on smart technology engagement and behaviour change opportunities

Main conclusions of the research

Support needs of vulnerable households and approaches to local provision

What are the support needs of vulnerable households in using smart meters and associated services?

How could the support be provided locally?

Communication and dissemination routes – audiences and narratives

Communicating the purpose and benefits of smart meters to householders effectively will be key in their success[20].Smart Energy GB (SEGB), which started out in September 2013 as the Smart Energy Delivery Body (SMDB) have carried out research on, and will manage the consumer engagement in the delivery and roll-out of smart meters, in terms of public engagement. As part of this, large workshops and knowledge sharing events have been held with the aim of to develop an effective plan for communication and dissemination. The workshops held have included individuals from energy and housing charities (including Kate Thomas from CSE), housing associations, local authorities, DECC, academics and community groups; the findings of which have been published.

SEGB have identified three key stages for engagement: before and during installation, engagement with information from the smart meter (home display) and making changes in energy consumption[21]. Each stage is mainly concerned with providing clear, reliable information and inspiring people to engage ensuring vulnerable groups receive the appropriate support.

SEGB took insights from smart meter roll-out in other countries noting that successful campaigns promoted immediately accessible consumer benefits, such as controlling what you spend[20]. In addition, they found effective communication including notifying the public of whom they can turn to for advice, ensuring that those groups are trusted by communities. The most effective strategies also used customer queries is a learning tool further develop communication and dissemination routes.

There are considered to be two key stages in communication; 'saying yes' and 'starting to use the technology', both considered to be 'innovation decision behaviours'. It is recognised that whilst smart meters may be accepted for installation - 'saying yes' they may not be used, therefore further engagement may be necessary to ensure people 'start to use the technology'[20]

The Early Learning Project[22]found that older smart meter customers from lower social grades were least likely to have an existing awareness of smart meters (pre-installation). Generally, those over 75 were least satisfied with the installation process and recalled the least amount of information from the visits; some felt overwhelmed with around a third feeling dissatisfied with the explanations of home displays. However, 90% of all participants were satisfied with overall installation process which could lead to subsequent satisfaction with using the smart meter post-installation also.

As the audience is essentially the entire UK population, finding appropriate ways to communicate with each individual is the challenge. Individuals have a wide range of life circumstances, motivations, attitudes and underlying values. SEGB spent some time considering effective ways to engage different audiences throughout the UK. They believe branding is important and based on their pre-2013 research they believed 'control' would be a key narrative. In this sense control relates to increased awareness of energy usage leading to potential behaviour change leading to energy and subsequent cost savings. A potential barrier to engagement has been the 'newness' of the technology which can lead to consumer uncertainty. The role SEGB have identified in effective communication is to ensure householders recognise the benefits before and after installation.

In terms of dissemination routes, whilst the UK media landscape has changed a great deal in recent years, TV still dominates in terms of media consumption, and outdoor and direct marketing are still popular[20]. A range of communication channels will be needed. Partnerships are considered to be an effective way to reach vulnerable groups, such as through charities like CSE. Maintaining momentum, keeping messages fresh, interesting and keeping all aboard are key points to keep in mind, whilst ensuring dissemination of information is phased, targeted to the rights groups, timed well and budgeted for accordingly.


Dissemination messages SEGB have previously come up with are:

  • 'Take control'
  • 'Smart meters enable a smarter relationship with energy consumption'
  • 'Create a positive vision of a smart energy future'
  • 'Evolve messages and engagement activities to respond to consumer feedback throughout the roll-out'
  • Use customer testimonials to promote benefits

SEGB have recently launched Youtube videos and marketing material featuring characters named Gaz and Leccy, which is yet to be found to be effective or not. Previously, Victoria Australia were ineffective in communication which led to audiences forming their own narratives, the newly elected Government then formed a consumer-focused communication message; California developed an award-winning communication campaign which led to relatively low levels of consumer concern; Ontario ran a Government-led campaign co-branded with energy suppliers referencing Government materials, this focused on shifting demand using a time-of-use tariff and resulted in little public public. Examples of materials from these campaigns are shown below.

Examples of smart metering public engagement materials [9]

One key element to bear in mind is that messages of benefits and concerns should be separated. In partnering to promote messages the community groups should be involved from the start; individuals and groups should be educated to promote the benefits effectively; the groups should have regular meetings with energy companies during roll-out to ensure concerns are resolved and the communication impact develops.

Tailored narratives

Tailoring messages to specific groups could lead to increased interest from the public, as oppose to using one message which only motivates one particular section of society. This in turn could lead to an overall better understanding of smart metering across the UK.There are numerous ways to segment, or categorise, the population. For example, Vicky (and Will Anderson) here at CSE previously used the following categories within her research on consumer preferences for home energy displays[23]:

  • Group 1: Prepayment meter users
  • Group 2: Under 30 years old
  • Group 3: 60-69 years old
  • Group 4: 30-59 years old, socio-economic group A/B/C
  • Group 5: 30-59 years old, socio-economic group D

Whilst the research noted differences between the groups, a clear consensus came through in relation to the design of smart home displays, which may be useful in designing communication narratives which is to focus on money and the cost of energy use, and not on power. participants from the study did learn from the displays, and also from each other and their common experiences.

Another popular method of categorising the population in relation to attitudes is the DEFRA Pro-environmental Attitudes Framework which divides the general public into the following key groups:

  • Positive Greens (18% UK population)
  • Waste watchers (12%)
  • Concerned consumers (14%)
  • Sideline supporters (14%)
  • Cautious participants (14%)
  • Stalled starters (10%)
  • Honestly disengaged (18%)

An awareness of the split between attitudes could be useful to bear in mind when directing messages at groups.


Identifying typical householder values may be useful in designing effective tailored messages. Previous research on householder values may be of use within this process. Research by Haines et al (2007) on user values in the home within a technology driven smart home project, identified that 82.5% of the population value non-technology items within the home above all else[24]. For example, relaxation/home comforts was valued most highly by the largest portion of householders (12 out of 40 participants), followed by family (7), garden/neighbourhood (6), living/social space (5), appliances (4), cars/bikes (3), objects/art (2) and pets (1). However, in terms of things that saved people time 85% were found to value technology most highly in this respect; at the top of the list for time saving technologies was those which help to clean/wash/tidy (18 out of 139), followed by cooking/drinks (9), comfort/hygiene (3), entertainment (3), information/communications (3) and transport (3). Of things that make people feel safe in the home the research found technology accounted for 36% of responses; of which barriers (14 out of 39 participants) ranked highest, followed by alerts/alarms/deterrents (14), communications (5), human support (5) and automatic cut off (1). Whilst the responses found within this study were from 2007, pre-smart meters, the results are likely to still be relevant for many households at present but may change in the future. The research also found that people do not display and share information in one single place or using one single technique; people are likely to leave impromptu notes and messages in context specific locations around the home - a single interface such as an in-home display unit may not fit with this behaviour, however smart phones might help in this way.

Findings from the UK Energy Demand research Project (EDRP) highlighted that engineers and energy specialists tend to forget that the average householder is not familiar with energy units; or may not be interested; or may be alienated by numerical displays

Interest of health and social care sectors and understanding of 'cold homes' link to health

Smart Meter technology has the possibility of aiding those with long-term health conditions related to living in cold homes. This may be through communicating direct with the householder about energy use and indoor temperatures, or through data sharing with local GPs. This is controversial as data sharing will require permission, in addition set up and run costs may be high.

Research by NEA for Citizens Advice highlighted potential pathways to communicate with vulnerable groups, pre, during and post-installation enabling installers to meet SMICoP regulations effectively[25]. NICE Guidance[26] recommends that all meter installers are trained to help the most vulnerable and provide information in a way that can be understood, in addition to awareness of how the cold home can affect health - an accreditation scheme may be used.

Previous research 'titled 'Project Hydra' has been found on using telecare support in collaboration with Smart Meters[27]. Clinicians accessed data via a web clinical interface and were able to act on anomalies (for 13 participants). The data transmitted included blood pressure data using a Zigbee wireless enabled blood pressure meter, in conjunction with weight scales. This enabled one participant with high blood pressure to be provided with more suitable medication. In relaity this may be time consuming for doctors and complex/costly to set up.

The NHS promote telecare to enable patients 'to live independently in their own homes' (using alarms and health monitoring)[28], which could be an area to keep up-to-date on.
  1. Arquiva and YouGov (2015) Are our cities really getting smarter? Available at: http://www.arqiva.com/news/press-releases/are-our-cities-really-getting-smarter/
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  11. name=parliament
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  15. name=navigator
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  18. Hargreaves et al., 2010; and Pidgeon et al., 2008 cited in Ngar yin mar et al (2012) Consumer perceptions of smart grid development:Results of a Hong Kong survey and policy implications. Energy Policy 49 (2012) pp204–216
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  23. Anderson, W. and White, V., 2009. Exploring consumer preferences for home energy display functionality. Report to the Energy Saving Trust
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  26. NICE, 2015. Excess winter deaths and morbidity and the health risks associated with cold homes, NICE Guidance
  27. Project Hydra, 2012. Project Hydra - Smart Care from Smart Meters: Final report
  28. NHS, telecare and telehealth technology