Could our smartphones help in the fight against climate change?

Shaun Milne on how smartphones, together with smart meters, could help us respond to the climate emergency by helping us to understand our energy use better

Together, smart meter-enabled technologies, and the apps that control them, could be key to reducing our household energy consumption and our utility bills

As government leaders and officials around the globe arrive in Glasgow for COP26 the eyes of the world rest upon their actions to solve the climate crisis.

But might it be that one of the key solutions is in our pockets already? Our not-so-humble smartphones.

That’s the hope of Dundee-based Waracle, one of the world’s leading mobile app developers, which states that they are excited by the potential for us all to be greener via our phones as part of our modern lifestyles.

“Our phones can immediately put us in contact with our banks, our GPs or whoever,” says Sharon Dickie, Waracle’s chief commercial officer. “We want to make it easier for people to understand and engage with their energy use.”

Our current analogue energy system is outdated, but Waracle knows that a future smart energy system could incorporate a number of new green technologies and services, such as flexible tariffs or communal energy projects.

That is why they are working with energy companies on how a smart energy system – which is also essential to the UK’s commitment to reaching net-zero – can be easier for consumers to engage with.

Mike Wharton, chief technology officer for Waracle, says: “There’s all kinds of possibilities. Energy is one of these things that people know about, they use, but they don’t have a good understanding of where the demand is in their home.

“We did some work for the Portuguese market where they tried to use technology to give people that visibility. What we did was use AI to monitor frequency shift, current usage and determine the appliances that were using the energy.

“So rather than just giving customers an energy bill, it gave them a cost for the washing machine, fridge, TV, electric car… we gave people all that information.”

He adds: “People can’t influence that energy use unless they know what their energy use is, and a normal bill at the end of the month or the end of the quarter doesn’t give them that ability.”

In Britain, Smart meters can bridge that gap in understanding. They come with an in-home display that can show you how much energy you are using in near real-time and in pounds and pence. Smart meters have the potential to help households save both money and reduce their energy waste.

But Mike predicts that we can go even further, from geolocation on phones turning lights off when you leave a room to making it easier to get rid of gas boilers.

He adds: “We can influence people to be less wasteful and optimise, but generally people need to do their dishes, they need to put the washing machine on.

“For the last 100 years, we have had an energy supply and the whole premise of it is: energy is there when we need to use it, when we want to use it. Now we have fluctuating generation and we have to match supply and demand perfectly.

“Devices need to get smarter, but I think we need to use technology to do that, rather than relying on people, by developing technologies further to a more granular level – the sort that you can control from an app on your phone.”

But delivery is complex, says Sally Thomas, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA).

“There are so many knowns but also unknowns. There’s so much to do particularly to meet climate targets and to keep people’s fuel costs down while doing that, which is going to be really, really challenging,” she says.

“One size doesn’t fit all. Scotland is so varied in terms of its geography, accessibility, remoteness, rurality and type of housing stock – what you see in Glasgow is very different to what you see in Inverness or Orkney or Shetland.

“Smart meters can be really, really good in some situations and really helpful. They can be part of the solution. That’s reflected in our members, some of them have taken them up to quite a degree.”

For example, in the future, smart meters could make it easier for family members who live separately to look after their vulnerable relatives or help people to live independently in their homes for longer and be more sustainable.

Cassandra Dove, SFHA’s policy and research lead, has been working with a range of partners to get a clearer picture of needs.

“As we move forward to more complex technologies – whether that’s heat pumps, or thermostats, or controls that are different to what people are used to – then there’s going to have to be that extra support, so the costs benefits or the environmental benefits are maximised,” she says.

Smart meters will be key if this complex technology is to be effective. The smart energy system, reliant on the up-to-date data that smart meters will be able to provide, will not only help balance our energy demands with our renewable output, but will help ensure that electric vehicles and electricity reliant technology won’t crash the system.

And Sally ends on a hopeful note: “I am optimistic but realistic. It is one of the biggest challenges any of us will ever face in generational terms. It always will be impossible, until we have done it. And we will do it – because we have to.”

Maybe one day there might even be an app for that too…

Join the energy revolution. Search: “Get a smart meter.”