Government-backed trial means Bristol Energy is now offering households chance to buy a 'Heat Plan' tailored to their individual lifestyle
What if you paid a company not for units of energy, but for keeping the rooms of your house warm when you use them?
That's the idea of a novel new heating service now on offer from energy supplier Bristol Energy, as part of a government-backed trial to explore how smart home technology could cut household energy use and improve customer service.
As part of the trial, the first of its kind in the UK, Bristol Energy customers can sign on to a 'Heat Plan' that sets a home heating schedule hour-by-hour, room-by-room, using a smart heating control system.
The plan will then be tailored to the customers' individual home and lifestyle, Bristol Energy explained.
The introduction of the service follows detailed trials conducted by the government's Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) over the last two years, with participating households fitted out with smart home technologies that are expected to be widely deployed by the mid-2020s. Now Bristol Energy is making the service available to trial participants on a commercial basis.
Bristol Energy's head of innovation Samantha Nicol said testing heat as a service in a commercial setting will give energy suppliers a chance to "truly understand what our customers need, rather than just giving them what we think they want".
Matt Lipson, consumer insight lead at the ESC, added that selling heat as a service should provide suppliers with a commercial incentive to heat homes as efficiently as possible, while also offering a new route to market for low-carbon technologies. As such, the approach could cut carbon emissions in the long term, he suggested.
"Energy services create opportunities for entirely new business models and policy options, and could provide a powerful proposition for the switch to low carbon heating," he said. "If we are to truly put consumers at the heart of the energy system - which is essential as we switch to low carbon heating - we need to look beyond what people say and understand what they do with energy so we can tailor services to their needs."
In the original Heat Plan trials run by ESC, residents were offered a choice of three plans: a 'Fixed' plan where households paid a set price for their heating schedule and were charged extra for the use of additional 'Warm Hours'; a 'Flexi' plan, which came with a bundle of 'Spare Warm Hours' for use when residents wanted; and an 'Unlimited' plan providing households with as many Warm Hours as they wanted.
Just under half opted for a Heat Plan, split evenly between the Fixed and Flexi options. Only one household opted for the Unlimited plan. Energy Systems Catapult analysis suggests residents motivated by comfort were much more likely to choose a home heating plan over the standard service.
ESC's Lipson said the rollout of smart home technologies means heating plans could play a major role in the energy business of the future.
"The telecoms sector has used market feedback to decide what networks to install and how much capacity to build," he said. "This has revealed that consumers are willing to pay for unlimited broadband access and mobile coverage. Likewise, the automotive sector has used sales and usage data to design low carbon vehicles consumers want to buy. Similar techniques could help the energy sector reveal what consumers want from a low carbon energy system. Network operators could work with energy service providers to plan network upgrades that deliver service levels consumers want. Manufacturers could work with energy service providers to design heating systems solutions that give consumers the heating they want without producing carbon emissions."
With the government promising funding support to accelerate the roll out of district heating systems and experts adamant that UK carbon targets cannot be met without significant innovation across the heating sector, a host of energy companies will be watching the Bristol Energy initiative with interest. The sector could be about to find out whether or not people really are ready to purchase heat in much the same way as they buy a mobile phone plan.
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