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Smarter energy monitoring with a smarter grid

Experts at Southampton University are using innovative software to change household energy usage.

Reducing energy consumption is not a new idea, and few will argue that it does not make sense from an economic and environmental point of view, but in recent years little has been done to truly change the amount people use in the comfort of their own home.

The current and previous governments were both keen to highlight the effect that excessive energy usage would have on future generations, while introducing energy ratings for homes that have a direct impact on house prices has helped industry and consumers alike to boost their understanding of energy usage.

However, as far as the everyday monitoring of energy has been concerned, few ideas have really taken off.

British Gas was one of the organisations to introduce software that allows consumers to monitor aspects of their home such as central heating, but a truly comprehensive offering has not been developed – until recently.

Experts at Southampton University led by Professor Nick Jennings are working on a new way of monitoring energy usage on a real-time basis that can provide the most comprehensive means yet of understating the impact homeowners are having on the environment and what they are spending.

It is also a two-way process, with the technology advising people about additional measures they can take to improve their energy efficiency and ultimately lower their impact on the environment while simultaneously reducing their energy bills. The hope is that it will help people to adjust their habits so they are only using exactly what they need.

The new software is being trialed on students at the university, who have workstations equipped with energy-sapping technology that is connected to a central database displaying the amount of power that each person uses.

The idea is that a league table of sorts is produced that names and shame people depending on how much energy (unnecessary or otherwise) they are using.

It is designed to expand on current energy-monitoring technology by analysing the energy use of every single device in a house.

People are then advised on how to run and use them more efficiently or, where appropriate, recommend a new device entirely.

In the case of a washing machine that is not cheap to replace, homeowners will be advised about how much it costs to run, which will be then juxtaposed with the projected costs of a new washing machine and how long it would take householders to recoup the differential if they were to buy one.

‘Smart grid’

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Jennings said the technology can change the way people live, but it will be depend on the government proceeding with a national ‘smart grid’ network that provides both electricity and two-way communications technology.

The concept would see both utilities and the public being able to monitor and remotely adjust the millions of devices across the UK that utilise its power.

The technology – which has this week been discussed at the Smart Metering Forum in London – could also be adjusted to minimise energy at peak times and lessen the strain on resources.

“The software will learn your energy profile over time,” Professor Jennings explained.

“People are not interested in spending lots of time investigating their energy usage, even though it is such a big bill, so it makes sense to let machines automate some of the process.”

Though the technology would undoubtedly be beneficial, the idea of a national network has been questioned by some, including Ross Anderson, a Cambridge computer science professor and chair of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

As well as arguing that a smart grid could present a “strategic vulnerability” in the case of a terrorist attack, he claimed that smart energy software fails to change people’s behaviour.

The most effective means would be to exert extreme social pressure, which would effectively shame people into curbing their energy use.

This “pervasive surveillance structure” would be akin to a hall of shame for people – similar to the trials Professor Jennings is running at Southampton University.

Whether this approach would be successful remains to be seen, but one thing is clear – work is being done to address the problem of energy waste.

  • airesearcher

    In the USA, I understand that in-basement electric furnaces combining thermal storage with a heat pump are available, and very popular in areas where there is a lot of local wind-power.
    Given the potential COP of 3.5, coupled with off-peak elecricity prices (which with a smart network could come on for short periods during the day when COP is increased due to high outside temperatures), electric heating could potentially be very cheap.
    Obviously most UK houses do not have suitably high basements, but perhaps a long, shallow version to go in the under-floor space would be possible, or even a well-insulated version standing outside with the compressor, with one or more heat exchangers on the wall inside. I could certainly position one under my kitchen window.
    Could future articles discuss the possibilities here, please?