New Internationalist

People power: Manchester’s energy uprising

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Rising energy bills have never been more prominent in the headlines. Smart energy meters – which allow you to track your energy use – are touted as a solution. But some argue they will only lead to greater dependency on the ‘Big Six’ energy companies that dominate the British market. Open-source technology could offer an alternative that allows consumers to reduce energy and empowers communities…

Stevendepolo under a CC License.
Open-source technology could help communities take control of their energy. Stevendepolo under a CC License.

For the average British citizen, the most significant financial worry isn’t unemployment or rising inflation but the threat of increasing energy bills.

It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of British households now live in fuel poverty – in other words, they spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heat and electricity. One solution to this, offered by energy companies, is a new generation of smart energy meters, which allow you to see how you use energy in the home. The data contained in these shiny, internet-enabled devices can be accessed by smart phone. Their sleek, user friendly displays will sit proudly on the mantle piece, replacing the old-style meters locked away in dusty cupboards in the stairs behind the Hoover.

Smart meters connect your energy supply up to the head office of one of the Big Six energy companies – not everyone’s idea of eco-utopia

It sounds like a good idea. Evidence shows that a greater awareness of how much energy we use leads to reductions in usage, with studies showing a drop of between 5 and 40 per cent when monitors are used. On the back of this, the government has already committed to replacing all Britain’s meters with smart equivalents by 2020, at a cost of around £11 billion ($17.8 billion) – though there are now doubts this will go ahead.

But this neat technological solution, slated as a way to empower citizens, save energy and stimulating low carbon innovation, has a darker, more negative flipside.

Who’s the daddy?

The problem with smart meters is that the company that built it can also track your energy use – smart meters connect your energy supply up to the head office of one of the Big Six energy companies – not everyone’s idea of eco-utopia. Surveys show that these companies are among the most distrusted and disliked in the country. The meters raise concerns around data protection, and the fact that these meters will make it far easier for consumers to be cut off.

Pgegreenenergy, under a CC License.
Smart metres are to installed in every British home. Pgegreenenergy, under a CC License.

Perhaps more insidious is the idea of ‘demand management’. The concept hinges around the idea that peaks and troughs in demand for electricity – such as those experienced at half time in the Champions League final, as 20 million British TV viewers put the kettle on – can be smoothed and managed by turning off non-essential appliances and re-routing power.

In the future, as the grid de-carbonizes, this may mean the power from your solar panels is re-routed from charging your electric vehicle battery into powering your neighbour’s kettle. The complexities of such a system mean the ability for householders to even know this is happening, let alone give consent, are limited.

For now, big technology companies such as Cisco, Siemens and IBM are involved in a kind of ‘data grab’. They’re aggressively pushing their kit and software, distributing free equipment and incentives to make sure their technology sets the data standard for the smart meters. As with other sectors, the ability to control, manage and sell data is extremely lucrative. The virtual data commons we own and generate are being commodified and stolen.

Don’t lose control

Open-source technology offers a way for consumers to fight back and regain some control. The term open source demotes a way of doing things that shares knowledge and commits to free redistribution and access to products’ design and implementation. Small groups of activists are applying these ideas to electronics and software, to empower the consumer, both by providing access to information and the ability to control data.

Open-source equipment puts the householder in control. They can assemble their own kit, install it, upgrade it, manage their own data

I’m part of the Carbon Co-op, a co-operative based in Greater Manchester. Community-based, we aim to help our members make radical reductions in household power through retrofitted installation of energy-saving measures such as external wall insulation or solar panels.

We’ve been grappling with how to empower our members through a better understanding of energy use. But rather than collaborate with one of the big technology companies we’ve entered a partnership with Open Source Energy Monitors, an open source, not- for-profit foundation based in North Wales.

The group has utilized open-source technology such as the fast-becoming-ubiquitous Rasperry Pi micro computer and the Arduino programming language. These technologies, often developed and manufactured in Britain, are increasingly being used in schools and further education colleges to introduce pupils to accessible IT applications.

Open power

Flexible, modular and robust, the open energy monitors can collect data from a variety of sensors from electricity usage to gas, humidity, temperature and even carbon dioxide (an indicator of air flow and therefore of the draughtiness of a house). This means householders get a much deeper understanding of their household environment than just electricity usage, so they get a good overall picture of the energy performance of their homes. And as the next generation of kit and sensors arrive, they can be simply added to existing installations rather than junking the whole set up – as usually happens with a closed-system upgrade that is incompatible with other brands.

Open-source equipment puts the householder in control. They can assemble their own kit, install it, upgrade it, manage their own data and even choose to share the results with friends and neighbours. New applications involve linking monitors to social media sites or blogs or use games to engage homeowners and children in energy challenges and adventures.

Feeding energy data into a co-operative model means householders’ data benefits them, not a third party multinational.

The beauty of open source technologies and processes is that we can all get involved in developing the idea, whether that be as a geeky developer hacking new code or as a householder testing out kit.

Slowly but surely the transition to low-carbon energy is taking place. Who controls and profits from that transition is up for grabs. The Big Six could simply go from providing fossil-fuelled power to low-carbon power or, citizens and communities can use this opportunity to regain control and be truly ‘people powered’.

Jonathan Atkinson is Project Manager of Carbon Co-op.

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