Measure for measure

3 min read

Features editor

There’s a new gadget in my flat. It’s small and unflashy, it’s sitting on the corner of a worktop in my kitchen, and it tells me, from second to second, how much carbon dioxide the electricity I use is generating. And already it’s proving strangely fascinating.

Having been writing about smart meters for some time, when my new utilities supplier offered me one, I thought it was about time I tried it out for myself. It isn’t a billing meter — my bills still depend on the reading from the main analogue meter — so it didn’t need any complicated installation. A magnetic sensor clips around one of the cables going into the meter and plugs into a wireless transmitter, and the display unit sits wherever is convenient.

So for the past couple of days, everytime I or my partner switches on anything electrical, we’ve been dashing into the kitchen to see what’s happened to the little arc on the top of the LCD and the progress bar that marks where I am compared with the average household. It’s odd what you discover. The toaster uses much more electricity then the dishwasher. The computer uses hardly any, but you do see it tick upwards if you put a CD in it. And energy-saving lightbulbs really do make a big difference. Once the supplier confirms my tariff, I’ll be able to adjust the display to show how much money I’m spending, at which point I’ll get even more obsessive about switching off lights in rooms that aren’t being used.

Having this little chunk of plastic handy has really pointed out what physicists always knew and engineers have been saying since the industrial revolution: if you can’t measure something, you can’t control it. Just knowing, vaguely, in the back of your mind that a certain appliance is a bit juice-hungry is no substitute for seeing the hard numbers when you switch the thing on. Knowledge is power; or, in this case, cutting the amount of power.

The consumption of one small household in East London might seem trivial, but what policymakers call ‘the domestic sector’ — homes, to you and me — is currently the biggest single source of reductions in the UK’s carbon emissions. Put simply, most people just haven’t taken steps to reduce their electricity usage. Commentators might say that this reflects a lack of understanding of climate change, or a reluctance to comply with what’s seen as patronising and controlling government rhetoric. But there’s a simple fact that’s missing in this argument: if you use less energy, you spend less money.

The domestic sector is certainly a target for government. Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, announced this week that public money will help to train 1000 apprentices in how to insulate homes, installing loft, cavity and solid wall insulation. Sceptics might say this is trivial, but a very large proportion of the housing in the UK is older properties which weren’t built with insulation in mind, and the amount of expensive energy — which residents have paid for — that escapes out of roofs and through single-glazed windows and thin walls is staggering.

Huhne is also preparing to announce a new roadmap for UK emissions reductions, clarifying exactly how the government intends to meet its EC commitment to reduce CO2 by 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050; meanwhile, the BBC is reporting that the EC itself is to recommend that the 2020 target should be nearer to 30 percent than 20 percent. This, it argues, is to take account of rising oil prices, and the increasing premium that will therefore attach to energy generation technologies that don’t rely on burning stuff.

But everything hinges on measurement. The measurement of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and of the changes in the climate; the measurement of emissions from point and dispersed sources; the measurement of electricity usage by industry. And the measurement of how much you’re using in your own home. Here’s something else: since I’ve been using my new gadget, the quality of my lifestyle hasn’t changed at all. But in a weekend, I cut my energy usage by 10 percent.