The energy landscape is changing fast. Reducing CO2 emissions is an ever more pressing agenda item for policy makers and technology is surging forward with the adoption of electric vehicles, solar panels and smart-home internet-enabled devices. The smart meter rollout continues apace with over 11 million gas and electric meters connected to the national secure network to date.
Domestic smart meter data has the potential to revolutionise research into home energy use by offering much more finely grained data than was previously possible. Smart meters can provide half-hourly consumption data which can be updated on a daily basis. Data from traditional meters is often only available for researchers as aggregated annual totals and the data is only accessible to researchers 1-2 years after the time when the energy was actually used.
However, smart meter data belongs to the consumer, and householders are understandably cautious of how their data is being used. So any researchers working with smart meter data must demonstrate that they are adhering to the most rigorous standards of data privacy and protection laid out in the Smart Energy Code (SEC) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, 2018).
Accessing smart meter data
Informed consent must be obtained from any household participating in research, and institutions must be awarded a specific status (DCC Other User) by the Smart Energy Code Administrator and Secretariat (SECAS) before they can begin the process of accessing smart meter data from the national smart meter data system (DCC).
Informed consent entails providing research participants in writing with detailed information about what data will be accessed and how it will be used, explaining how the data will be protected and anonymised, and informing them that they can withdraw at any time. Gaining DCC Other User status entails the data controller organisation going through numerous highly rigorous checks and audits of their data governance procedures and technology setup, as well as ongoing audits and checks throughout the period of use.
In addition to this, the technical infrastructure for data to be collected from the national secure network into a suitable research repository is also required. This can be costly as the processes are very new and there are a limited number of organisations with the levels of expertise to be able to provide the service.
So although the infrastructure is now in place to unlock this wealth of new smart meter data, it is a far from straightforward task and it may well be beyond the budget and scope of a small or medium-sized research project. This could lead to innovative research ideas involving smart meter data falling by the wayside.
The origins of SERL
A combination of the above factors led a group of academics – that would become the Smart Energy Research Lab consortium – to propose to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that rather than individual academics and institutions having to navigate these processes, a portal should be set up that would allow all UK academics the opportunity to access the data. Although there are still several administrative steps academics must take before using SERL data, the time and expense of doing this is radically reduced by going via SERL.
The SERL project team also carried out the recruitment of an ‘observatory panel’ of c13,000 GB homes – a major undertaking in itself – whose data researchers would have access to within a state-of-the-art research portal based at the UK Data Archive, University of Essex.
Five years after the original conception of SERL – by researchers at UCL led by Professor Tadj Oreszczyn – and after 3 years of work on the technical and data governance infrastructure, the SERL data is now available for UK researchers to apply for access to use in their projects.
Simon Elam, the SERL Project Director (UCL) – who has led the SERL team’s journey through the previously uncharted territories of the legal and technological intricacies of accessing smart meter data in a shifting landscape says:
“After an enormous amount of background work we are delighted to make this resource available to UK researchers. We hope that the academic community will take full advantage of this new resource and use it to fuel innovative projects across a range of disciplines that will give new insights into how we can use energy more efficiently, sustainably and affordably.”
The second edition of the SERL dataset was released in May 2021 and includes daily and half-hourly domestic gas and electricity consumption data for approximately 4,800 households recruited in SERL Waves 1 and 2. The data covers the period from August 2018 to October 2020. Linked to this smart meter data is Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) data for the households (where available); over 20 different weather data variables; and building and demographic information about the SERL households taken from a contextual survey answered by participants.
This second edition updates the previous dataset released in August 2020 which was comprised of data from 1700 pilot study (Wave 1) participants. A further release is planned for later in 2021 which will add data for the SERL Wave 3 participants and thus cover the full SERL Observatory panel of over 13,300 homes.
The research programme
SERL also has its own research programme with eight projects being led from within the consortium of seven universities and the Energy Saving Trust.
The projects look at a range of topics including thermal comfort; improving Energy Performance Certificates; and habitual energy consumption. A project looking at the short and long-term impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on domestic energy use is close to reporting its first findings and illustrates the need for access to energy data to be quick and accurate to tackle emerging issues. A SERL annual report giving headline statistics and case studies from the SERL research programme is being planned which will complement existing UK energy statistics.
Beyond the SERL consortium programme, it remains to be seen what other research the SERL data will be used for and what insights it can provide into the UK’s energy consumption. All projects using SERL must be approved by an independent Data Governance Board who assess the ethical impacts and academic merit of the research as well as, crucially, whether the project will be in the public interest.
In between the game-changing developments within the UK’s energy systems and the rapid assimilation of new technology in homes, SERL has navigated a very complex landscape to build a research portal that could prove revolutionary for UK energy researchers. Having provided a significant amount of groundwork to enable UK academic researchers to work with the smart meter data, the team are now hoping that researchers will use the SERL resource as a springboard to leap into a new generation of public interest energy research that will address some of the major challenges our society faces in the coming decades.
SERL is an EPSRC-funded (EP/P032761/1) research consortium of seven universities and the Energy Saving Trust
James O’Toole is the Smart Energy Research Lab Consortium Manager and has worked on the project since 2017.
He is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the consortium in collaboration with the SERL senior management team. James also leads on promoting SERL’s work as widely as possible across the field of energy research. He joined UCL Energy Institute in October 2015 and was previously End Use Energy Demand Centres Coordinator.