You may have seen ads on TV and in the press telling you that smart meters are coming.

The government and the energy industry are working together on a multi-billion pound programme to install new electricity and gas smart meters in UK homes over the next few years.

The publicity has mainly focussed on the fact that smart meters will automatically tell your energy supplier how much energy you have used, meaning no more estimated bills and no need to submit meter readings. 

The ads also suggest that smart meters, by showing in real-time how much energy you are using and how much it is costing, will encourage you to reduce your energy use, saving you money and helping the environment.

As important as these benefits are, they are not the main point of smart meters – and we want our customers to understand the full potential of this new technology.

Smart meters lay the foundations for a more intelligent, cheaper and cleaner energy system.

The UK’s existing, old-fashioned energy system involves huge nuclear or fossil fuel power stations pushing power down long wires to homes and businesses. The system is all designed around the need to meet the very highest peak of demand on cold winter evenings when everyone is cooking dinner with the heating turned up and all the lights on.  This means that all of us, through our energy bills, pay millions of pounds each year to maintain our aging energy infrastructure just so it can handle those few, rare winter evenings each year.

But there is a more intelligent and cost-effective way of keeping the lights on – even on the bleakest of winter evenings. And that’s to “flatten the peak”; in other words, to encourage people to shift their power use away from periods of high demand.

At the moment, power stations slavishly generate to meet any level of demand. But smart meters will enable a more flexible, intelligent relationship between generation and demand, which will reduce the need for infrastructure upgrades and allow a greater share of the UK’s power to come from variable, renewable sources of power, such as wind and solar. Smart meters are the key to increasing the UK’s renewable electricity capacity from 25% towards 100%, helping us to tackle climate change and reducing our dependence on imported fossil and nuclear fuels.

So, how will it work?

Already, some businesses are happy to be financially rewarded for switching off certain non-critical activities temporarily at peak periods.  The deployment of smart meters and development of smart household appliances could see this “demand side response” technology become common in homes. For instance, householders might agree to let their energy supplier automatically pause their dishwashers, fridges or tumble dryers for short periods in return for a payment or discount on their bills. 

In a single home the impact on the energy system would be small, but aggregated across many thousands of homes, this could mean the difference between needing to spend billions on a new nuclear power station  – or not. At first the idea of your energy company switching off your appliances might feel uncomfortable or invasive – like your energy is being rationed. But participation in this kind of initiative will be entirely voluntary and the technology will minimise inconvenience. Would you even notice if your dishwasher cycle took a few minutes longer than usual?

As another example, imagine a world where you get home from work and plug in your electric car. You know that you won’t need to drive again until the next morning, but your car battery is still holding 150 miles’ worth of electrical charge in it. You might want to keep a minimum of 50 for emergencies, leaving 100 mile’s worth of electricity that could power your oven, lights and TV through the peak evening period when power is most expensive. Later, your car could charge up automatically in the middle of the night when demand is low and power is cheap, ready for the morning.   Smart meters are the underlying technology that will make this vision possible.

This technological revolution won’t happen overnight: it’s not the case that installing a smart meter will immediately turn your home into some futuristic vision from science fiction. But smart meters are a vital upgrade as we move to a cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy system than we have today.