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Tech for People

How smart tech can help end fuel poverty

By Nick Johansen

Chief Operating Officer

20 Jan 2021

We live in a world where fuel poverty is all too common. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Smart technology that is with us today will soon revolutionise how we consume and pay for electricity.

Let’s start with a look at how we get our electricity in Britain.

If you had asked this question 15 years ago, the answer would have been largely from burning fossil fuels like coal and gas. Now, the answer is increasingly from renewable sources like solar power and wind, and these sources regularly exceed those from non-renewables.

Britain may not be the sunniest place on the planet, but the wind is certainly a regular visitor to our shores. Some days, wind accounts for 30% of the electricity generated in the UK. With wind turbines popping up both on and off shore around Britain that contribution will certainly grow, particularly as we aim to combat climate change.

Generating all of Britain’s electricity needs from wind is still some way off and it’s not just a case of building more and bigger wind turbines.

The problem is that wind is what I call very “on-and-offable”. Gas is very on-and-offable too, but with gas you have a switch. When the wind blows is not under our control and there are days in Britain when the wind just doesn’t give a puff.

Storing it would be the perfect answer but that’s not as easy as it sounds.

In the past, Britain relied on something called pumped storage hydroelectric schemes. In locations such as Ffestiniog in Wales there are power stations where we can store excess power. When the wind is blowing and we can generate electricity cheaply, the Ffestiniog power station pumps water up to a lake on top of a mountain. When the wind stops and the price of electricity increases, the water is released back down the mountain, generating hydroelectricity as it falls.

These storage systems are expensive but there is a growing pool of electricity storage which, with a bit of smart tech, we can use to help make electricity cheaper. That storage is in the growing number of homes that have electric vehicles sat in their driveways or which have installed electricity storage batteries, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, which can hold electricity generated from solar panels on the roof.

This is why, in 2021, Utilita will start supplying households beyond our traditional prepayment meter customers. We will be offering our customer-friendly power supplies to the sort of early adopter households who have solar panels and electric vehicles already. It promises to offer great value and tick all those green boxes that we must all do to help limit climate change.

So how does all this relate to fuel poverty?

Most householders pay a fixed rate per unit for their electricity, even though the actual price of that unit varies dramatically depending on the time of day and the time of year.

What if we could make sure your house only used electricity when it is cheap? That has been around in one form or another for a number of years with things like Economy 7 storage heaters. These operate at night when electricity is less in demand and is cheaper. However, many of these have been in place for decades and simply do not work as they should.

We are helping customers update their homes at the same time as saving money - £160 million worth of savings during the course of the ECO3 scheme. Our growing team of in-house installers is working every day around the country to put things like air source heat pumps and smart boiler controls into Britain’s homes and social housing schemes.

Connecting all of these things together will bring huge benefits to Britain’s homeowners.

Utilita made history in 2005 when it installed Britain’s first ever smart meter. Since then, we have installed more than 1.7m around the country and we are fast-tracking this so even more households can see why so many people like being with us.

Our smart meters can do so much more than just telling us how much electricity you have used. They enable you to top-up easily, of course, but they are also intelligent enough to be able to control your household appliances.

This is where it gets really smart.

Let’s say it’s a windy autumn day in Britain. The turbines will be turning at full pelt and the price of electricity will go down. ‘Aha’ says our network of connected smart meters, ‘We should fill our boots’. We then charge up those infrequently used electric vehicle batteries and home storage batteries with nice, cheap and green electricity.

Later on, the smart meter thinks ‘Right, we need the heating on’ and transfers that electricity to the heating system. Of course, we also need to make sure the car battery is topped up again before we need it the next morning.

It doesn’t stop there. With our smart meters, we can also turn your washing machine or dishwasher on at the time when electricity is cheapest.

Naturally, you could always do all this yourself. You could set your alarm to wake you up at 4am to set the dishwasher going to save money. With our smart technology, you won’t have to. It will know what is going on with the price of electricity to know exactly when is the best time to get the power and decide where to store it – which may well be at someone else’s house - until it is needed.

This is not science fiction. It is a power revolution we are already starting to live in. Smart technology like this has the power to make Britain’s renewable energy dream reality. There is also a tantalising opportunity to really make fuel poverty a thing of the past.

Renewable power is so plentiful sometimes that the National Grid will pay for supply companies to take it off their hands. With this smart tech network in place, we can grab the power at those times and even pay you to use it.

Now that gives us a nice warm feeling. What about you?