The Science of Sustainability

In a Sea of Energy Data, Utilities Try to Inspire Conservation

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email

A "smart" demonstration home set up by Southern California Edison. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

California's electric utilities have installed more than 11 million smart meters in homes and businesses around the state. Which means for the first time, customers can see how much electricity they're using every hour, instead of once-a-month when the bill comes.

Consumers use less energy, studies have shown, when they can see that real-time data. But getting customers to pay attention in the first place may be the biggest hurdle.

Digital smart meters provide a stream of energy use data, which industry analysts say has the potential to remake our homes. That's evident just outside of Los Angeles, where Southern California Edison has set up a "smart" demonstration home.

"Above us we have photovoltaic solar panels to the left used for generating electricity and a solar thermal water heating system," says Cynthia Miller as she leads a tour of the "Smart Energy Experience."

"You might notice that we have some nice appliances," she says, pointing to the kitchen. The house is a green gadget-lovers dream. There's an electric car in the garage, LED lights, and a "smart" washing machine that communicates with the dryer.

"They're able to talk to each other so the washer can tell the dryer what its washing and the dryer can determine the optimal heat setting for that particular load of laundry," Miller says.

There's also a small screen in the kitchen that shows how much power the house is using at any given moment. Miller demonstrates what happens when you turn the toaster on. "And we'll see a jump here… and there we go. The jump happened and it's 1.7 kilowatts at 41 cents per hour."

The real intelligence of this house is its ability to communicate with the electric grid through its Home Area Network. So on a hot summer day, when SCE is cranking out power, the utility could send a message to your house that kicks your home into conservation mode.

"You notice my lights have dimmed, the ceiling fan turned on, the shades are coming down," says Miller. The thermostat turns up to 73 degrees and the air-conditioning shuts off. SCE would offer this as a voluntary program with financial incentives to sweeten the deal.

"You know, what we anticipate is the awareness is really going to drive a change in behavior for our customers because this information is compelling," says Miller.

Swimming in a Sea of Data

Of course, our homes today aren't quite as advanced. That's evident every time I log into my PG&E SmartMeter account.

My home energy use on PG&E's website.

My home energy use on PG&E's website.

My account shows charts of my home's daily and hourly energy use. But, for the average consumer like me, it doesn't tell me a lot. I see a few spikes in the chart where clearly my husband and I used more electricity, but what caused it? Neither of us could figure it out.

"For most people, including for me, that really is not very useful information," says Jim Sweeney, director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

Studies have shown that consumers reduce their energy use by as much as 10 percent when they have smart meter data like mine. Sweeney says they also studied that with a group of Google employees.

"The results have been very disappointing. In the first month, there was a significant reduction of energy use, but by end of three or four months, they were back to the same amount. This becomes an interesting toy or gimmick for people at first, but then they get tired of doing it and they revert right back to the old behavior patterns," Sweeney says.

No One Said Change Was Easy

Sweeney says using electricity in our homes is a lot like going grocery shopping in a store with no price tags. "There are flank steak and chuck steak and hamburger. But you've never seen a price tag ever in a grocery store. How good a shopper would you be with that little information?"

There are reasons to pay attention to energy, whether it's to reduce your carbon footprint or save money on your utility bill. But even though electricity may seem expensive, Sweeney says it's only a small part of the average household's income.

"We use 2.3 percent of our disposable personal income for electricity, natural gas and all other energy in the house. So if you have work hard to save that, you're probably not going to do it," he says.

Sweeney believes the key is to attach a price tag to the decisions we make the second we make them. So, if you turn up your air conditioning, the thermostat tells you how much more you're spending.

The technology to do that isn't far away. Today's smart meters already have the capability to talk to your house through a home area network. The California Public Utilities Commission also recently ruled that utilities must make customers' energy use data available to third-party companies that sell home energy management systems, if a customer purchases one.

But utilities have a long way to go to get customers to think this way. Only 20 percent of PG&E customers have set up online accounts. And according to one study, consumers interact with their utilities for only six minutes a year on average.

Clean Tech Companies Search for the Secret Recipe

"We have to get it right when we have those six minutes," says Dan Yates, CEO of Opower, a smart grid technology company that's trying to find the secret sauce of behavioral change. PG&E has hired Opower to redesign the website I was looking at. (Check out a preview here.)

"People don't want data, they want insights. So, I always joke that my mom is my litmus test. And I know that she would never spend a minute looking at raw energy data. But what she would love to find out is that her freezer is very energy intensive," he says.

Working with other utilities, Opower says their program has helped households cut their energy use by one to three percent and the change sticks. They do that by showing customers how their energy use compares to similar homes in their neighborhood. (More about what motivates us).

"It's not shame. It is really just recognizing an addressable opportunity to reduce usage. And then when you start to have people's attention, the key comes down to have relevant, targeting insights," says Yates.

Yates says for utilities that are used to dealing with hardware, working with behavioral science is a new challenge. But it's one with the potential to remake the way we consume energy. PG&E's redesigned SmartMeter website will be available by the end of the year.

Related

Explore: , , , , , , , ,

Category: Energy, Engineering, Environment, News, Radio

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email

About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.