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Death of the kilowatt hour (kWh)

When learning to drive I understood the idea of Miles per Gallon (MPG). My first car gave an average and instantaneous measure of fuel use. It was fun (for a while) to try and minimise fuel consumption, but eventually I just drove as I wanted.

Today I don’t look at MPG, but car manufacturers know this. My car nudges my behaviour through a simple dashboard icon if I’m loitering in the wrong gear and I assume this benefits my fuel efficiency. But between the radio and Sat Nav detail there isn’t much dashboard space to give me that feedback, and interest waned a long time ago despite MPG being easy to comprehend.

Where am I going with this? We discuss our energy consumption and increasingly our production, using units of kWh (the rate of power used). It is similar to rate of fuel used to cover distance but the kWh is far less obvious in what it achieves. Motors and heating elements are like sports cars; thirsty for energy. Alarm clocks, and to some degree lighting, merely take small sips in comparison. Each are used in different ways, making the overall kWh contribution complex to comprehend and, therefore, it is difficult for many to know how to minimise energy bills or invest in technologies like Distributed Generation.

The relentless development of technology is enabling a rapid development of services that exploit smart meter and grid capabilities. If a greater head of population is to benefit from this development there is need to stop discussing energy in such a clunky, and unappealing terminology as the kWh.  If I’m honest, I grasped MPG in my head, but I still don’t know if a kWh makes a cup a tea or heats my house for a week.

Technology increasingly enables the lines to blur between energy consumer and producer.  If these so called ‘prosumers’* are to exist in significant numbers each will need to easily comprehend the extent they can valuably participate in the energy industry; either through reducing bills or through earning revenue through generation or other roles. 

The attraction and retention of prosumers by suppliers, system operators and potentially aggregators requires the terms of interaction to be understandable. As a population will we hand responsibility over to technology to manage our energy if we cannot comprehend what outcome it will deliver? We will want to know how decisions made by technology will impact our quality of life and lifestyle preferences – talking in kWh isn’t going to help.

We are set to see a mix of approaches to redefine the basis of our energy related conversations over the next few years, and as always there are lessons to be learnt from other sectors, such as fitness. Could a concept similar to Nike fuel be relevant? Where attempts to provide a universal measure of fitness activity have helped engage users of its fitness tracking products in a way that simple steps per day did not. 

Suppliers, networks owners and other industry participants that need to engage customers and prosumers will need to bring transparency and an ease of understanding to the new movements of energy. Addressing this challenge could easily be forgotten or postponed whilst we wrestle with the challenge of upgrading our energy infrastructure and delivering against government mandates.  As always a focus on the customer, or indeed prosumer throughout our energy transition is key, after all the prosumer is always right.
 
*The term prosumer was coined by Alvin Toffler, an American writer and futurologist. He predicted the emergence of the combined role of producer and consumer, or the trend of do-it-yourself (DIY) in every aspect of life.

Back to October 2016

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