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What Are Smart Meters and Do they Save Energy?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 15 Jul 2014 | comments*Discuss
Smart Meters Energy Saving Save Energy

Smart meters look set to be the next ‘must have’ energy saving gadget for every home. These are already available to buy in many shops and from a variety of online suppliers. Various feasibility studies that have investigated whether smart meters save money and power have produced conflicting results but the consensus now seems to be that they do work.

What is a Smart Meter?

A smart meter is a fairly simple piece of equipment that you plug into your electricity supply and it tells you how much electricity you are using in real time. You can also get a similar meter to monitor gas usage but these aren’t as commonly available yet. The idea is that you as a householder can check the smart meter at different times of the day, when you are doing different activities to see exactly how you can reduce your power demand to save energy and save money.

One experiment that is easy to do is to switch all of the lights in the house on and monitor the electricity that is being used, and then repeat with only one or two lights on. That should show exactly how much power and money you can save by not leaving lights on in rooms that no one is using.

Can Smart Meters Save Energy?

Estimates vary but most studies say yes, smart meters do provide the potential for greater energy efficiency. An original study done for DEFRA by the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford put the potential saving at between five and fifteen per cent. A later, more cautious report said it could be about 1%. In reality, the figure is somewhere in between – and it depends on whether you act on what the smart meter tells you.

One positive way to put a smart meter to good use is to monitor the times when electricity is available at a cheaper rate. This is a good time to set the dishwasher going, or to do a load of laundry. By taking advantage of the cheap rate of electricity and any energy saving programs on your machine, you could make a substantial cost saving.

Advantages to the National Grid

As well as saving money for homeowners and increasing their energy efficiency, smart meters are also likely to help the national grid and they could help energy efficiency at a countrywide level. If people do take advantage of the cheaper rate of electricity, this should calm the usual spikes that occur in electricity usage in the evenings. More people using large appliances overnight, or at least in the early hours of the morning, will reduce demand at peak times, making the overall energy generation system more efficient.

If smart meters really take off, some experts think that it could delay or prevent the building of new power stations in the next decade.

Do Smart Meters Pay for Themselves?

The cheapest smart meters are around £25 and the most expensive about £150. By using the electricity smart meter to save 10% of your annual bill could save the cost of the more expensive model in the first year, so a smart meter could definitely pay for itself. The only drawback is that you need to be committed to using the meter in the early days, monitoring the electricity supply and deciding how to change your energy usage to save that money. If you buy it, use it for a couple of days and then leave it in a cupboard or loft, it will represent a waste of money rather than a source of savings – and it won’t do a great deal for either your carbon footprint or the global environment.

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