Smart home, smart energy control: work from home edition

Heidi Vella 17 August 2020 (Last Updated August 14th, 2020 12:47)

As working from home becomes the new normal for many, domestic energy bills are soaring. But could smart home energy management systems, such as apps and thermostats, help customers and the grid manage the shift in demand?

Smart home, smart energy control: work from home edition
“People are taking the opportunity to upgrade their homes and if they can do it in a way that saves them energy costs every year, it hits both goals,” said Christian Deilmann. Credit: tado°

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of people’s lives, including their energy use. Country-wide lockdowns to stop the virus’ spread have seen the majority of people either working from home or furloughed.

While empty workplaces and closed shops, bars, and restaurants have resulted in an overall fall in energy demand, it has had the opposite effect on domestic consumption.

During the UK lockdown, three-quarters of the 2,000 people surveyed by comparison site comparethemarket.com said that they were using more energy. The extra usage could lead to a 37% rise in energy bills, according to the company. Similarly, a study of data from tado°, manufacturers of smart thermostats and air conditioning, found that in March 2020, when many people had shifted to home working, people used 15% more heating than they did in the same month the previous year.

While lockdown restrictions are easing and some people have returned physically to workplaces, many employees are expected to stay working remotely for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches, this could see energy costs rise further.

Research by management and consultancy firm WSP, which analysed the carbon footprint of 200 individuals in the UK when they worked from home versus in the office, found that staying home in winter had a greater environmental impact and cost due to domestic heating requirements.

Smart energy solutions

Domestic energy use could be reduced with smart home energy management systems that help people find ways to save power. For example, lowering the thermostat by 1°C can reduce bills by about 10%.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of these solutions on the market. British Gas’ HIVE, which offers a comprehensive entire home solution from smart lightbulbs to thermostats, is the market leader.

Others include Samsung’s almost real-time energy monitoring app called ‘SmartThings Energy Control’, which launched with green energy supplier Bulb last October. It connects to a smart meter to help customers understand and better manage their energy use by switching devices off remotely.

Additionally, tado° is the European leader for smart thermostats for heating and cooling. According to the company, it can save consumers around 31% on their energy bill.

The market penetration of these products at present is relatively small – around 8% of homes have a smart thermostat according to tado°- but more homeworking could be a driver for the market.

“One of the reasons people aren’t that responsive to energy management systems is that energy doesn’t cost much for many. But if they’re paying more, they’re more likely to care,” says Barny Evans, head of sustainable places, energy and waste, WSP.

Furthermore, Christian Deilmann, co-founder and managing director of tado° says lockdown has given people more time to invest in their home, including in smart technologies.

“People are taking the opportunity to upgrade their homes and if they can do it in a way that saves them energy costs every year, it hits both goals,” he explains.

Deilmann says that the company, which sells directly to consumers and works with energy companies, such as Ovo Energy and Octopus, creating offerings for their customers, has seen ‘steep growth’ compared to the same time last year.

Smart meters

The UK is transitioning to smart meters, which provide near real time information about energy use. And while this technology isn’t needed for all smart home solutions – tado° works without one – smart meters will be ‘crucial’ to the market, says Evans.

“Smart thermostats are a quick way for consumers to reap benefits, what they can do is simple and efficient; but smart metres are paramount because they enable variable energy management – the thing we’re all excited about,” says Evans.

Energy demand management, as it’s also known, with time-of-day-pricing tariffs, charges a different cost per kwh every hour of the day, depending upon demand and how cheap wholesale energy is to buy. The aim is to incentive consumers to shift their use to the cheapest time, generally between 10am-4pm and then overnight to help balance supply and demand.

According to Evans, the savings can be very large, with typical daytime prices of 7p per kWh compared to 15p at peak times. If customers can take advantage of cheaper prices, they are more likely to invest in smart management technology and home energy storage and electric vehicles, which can be charged when prices are low.

Most utilities in the UK are starting to offer time-of-day-pricing; while it is far from the standard, Evans thinks it will be in the future.

“This technology is absolutely crucial to the energy networks that we use because they’re now being fed more by the sun and wind and so supply is more lumpy; switching tariffs and moving your energy demand around will help support renewable energy integration and decarbonisation of the energy system,” he says.

Expect customers to be more switched on

Teg Dosanjh, director of connected living at Samsung Electronics UK & Ireland, says that consumers are more willing to engage now. 90%of the company’s SmartThings Energy Control users enter the app at least once a month and the ‘vast majority’ look at their usage approximately five times a week, he says.

“As more people increase their domestic energy use during the lockdown period, the ability to see the data more frequently than on a quarterly or monthly bill becomes paramount,” says Dosanjh.

“Such access can drive behavioural change to maximise the financial and environmental efficiency of a household’s energy use.”

What’s more, times of peak demand are changing. Recent research from Bulb shows households are using 27% more electricity at 1pm compared to pre-lockdown data, as more people cook and eat lunch at home.

Eventually, it is thought that smart technologies will automatically manage energy use for customers so that they can take advantage of cheap prices without much effort. Some already have a degree of automation. Tado°, for example, will automatically switch off the heating when the last person leaves the house and restarts it when someone approaches.

Dosanjh says that, eventually, a washing machine could know that it will be sunny in the afternoon and therefore recommend air-drying your laundry instead of a full dry cycle.

“These are the types of scenarios that will soon be ubiquitous across the UK,” he says.

Only the start

There are challenges, such as the hampered UK smart meter roll out, which was delayed by four years in 2019, but also issues around social justice.

As Evans explains: “It’s important to consider how much each of us can benefit from this technology; those most likely to are people living in detached houses with battery technology and electric vehicles and the people least likely to are those living in flats. That’s definitely a major challenge for society,” says Evans.

Furthermore, to save money, an upfront investment is required that may be impossible for low-income households. Instead, they could be penalised for using energy at peak times when it’s most expensive.

But the experts agree, due to the grid benefits and energy saving potential, uptake of smart energy management solutions is likely to rise – and it should help to tackle climate change. Keeping individual people warm at home, compared to 100 people in an office building, is much less efficient; this technology can help reduce the environmental impact of working from home.

“At some point in the future, whether it takes five or 10 years, all households will be connected and smart because of the advantages,” says Deilmann.

“It is the role of Samsung, Bulb, and our other industry peers to continue raising consumer awareness of the potential of smart technology and the financial and environmental impact it can have through effective energy management,” adds Dosanjh.