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Using energy data to map future needs

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Identifying efficiencies in homes, business and transport will form a crucial part of mitigating the climate emergency. Big data and its management can provide real insight into the changes we need to make, which should provide clear benefits for consumers.

‘Energy mapping’ is one data area that has been in development for some time. We reported on high profile plans to construct a USA-wide heat map using methods similar to those employed by Google Earth in 2015. But these plans, thermal imaging cameras on cars included, seem to have fallen by the wayside since they were first mooted. Technology – and thinking – has moved on considerably in the last four years.  

Energy data – the next generation

Collecting and combining data to understand how and when we use energy is a key step in improving energy efficiency. While heat mapping is useful in planning district heating and fuel poverty schemes, it is something of a twentieth-century approach to home energy data, given that it looks at averages across areas. Smart meters, on the other hand, have the potential to provide data at the level of individual homes – a clear improvement.

There are currently over 10.7million households with a smart meter in the UK, with over one million being second-generation models, known as SMETS2. These newer meters offer greater flexibility and the possibility of integration into new methods of supplying and charging for energy.

Smart meters could alter tariffs forever

smart home interface

At a simple level, energy suppliers can access half-hourly data from smart meters if you give them permission to do so. While this information could feel intrusive, in fact they’re less interested in how you use energy at a micro level than in looking at the bigger picture to see patterns of energy use across your neighbourhood and your region.

Understanding these patterns of energy use allows energy companies to buy electricity when it’s cheaper and pass those savings on to customers in the form of time of use tariffs, which reward energy use at certain times of day with cheaper rates. It also allows greater integration with electric vehicles (EVs) through specialised EV tariffs, which reward recharging at off-peak times – in some cases even offering free charging.

The ultimate objective is to smooth out peaks and troughs in electricity supply, which allows easier generation and distribution. Ofgem, the energy regulator, is currently looking into whether or not it should make taking these half-hourly measurements from energy companies, in a reform of ‘energy settlements’. It estimates that insight from smart meters could bring benefits of up to £40billion by the more intelligent, informed purchasing of energy – benefits that should be passed on to people in the form of lower bills.

Once half-hourly records of electricity usage from consumers become the norm, it’ll be possible to trade electricity between households and energy providers, in the same way as happens currently between the providers and generators. You’ll be able to ‘play the market’ by ensuring you use most electricity at the times of lowest demand – maybe by timing appliances to take advantage of generous rates or making money from battery storage and electric vehicles.

Data protection a priority

Advanced information-gathering comes with responsibilities. Whoever manages the data, whether it is utility or tech companies, the individual’s right to privacy is paramount and data must be guarded against outside attack or acquisition.

If you’re worried about ‘energy snooping’, you can be reassured to know that there is a very high level of data protection in place. Data belongs to the householder - even energy suppliers can’t access half-hourly data without your express permission.  

As for wider, high-resolution data from smart meters, only The Smart Energy Research Lab (SERL) can access that – and then, strictly on an opt-in basis from energy consumers. Anyone who participates will be helping researchers in projects that could well shape the future of energy in the UK.

Mapping local potential adds value

woman looking at data on screens

Better data is an important tool in tackling the huge number of energy inefficient homes in the UK. Visual representation of target areas can be extremely helpful. Energy Saving Trust’s Home Analytics programme provides geographical data – without the use of Google-style cameras on cars for business and local authority use.

Home Analytics uses statistical modelling from deep analysis of a range of data sets rather than personal information. And the accuracy of the data works in the favour of successful retrofit and fuel poverty schemes, solar installations and local heating initiatives. It’s also valuable for specific schemes as part of the smart meter rollout such as the Alternative Home Area Network (Alt HAN) arrangements, which aim to bring the potential of energy data sharing to homes that are ‘hard to reach’ with conventional smart meters, like high-rise flats.

Getting the best deal for householders

Energy Saving Trust is also involved with the Smart Energy Savings (SENS) innovation competition; a series of technology trials that utilise smart meter data to create energy efficiency savings for householders. The trials include developing apps to provide tailored energy-saving advice, with some linking with smart thermostats. We’re ensuring that projects are carried out well and savings established accurately. The trials begin early in 2020. One to watch.

Collecting and presenting data can be a complicated business, with barriers to jump for those looking to bring innovation on the back of big data. One thing’s certain, though - our chances of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and bills at an affordable cost is increased by using accurate, timely information.

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Gary Hartley's picture
Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.