The Future of Energy Management

October 20, 2010
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Intel's design for a Home Dashboard may encompass what we call energy management 2.0.

You may have seen the reports. Consumers say they want to be green and energy efficient, then they behave differently—or do nothing to save.

Motivating consumers to buy and install energy-saving products has been a puzzle for energy efficiency advocates. But a couple of companies say they have figured it out.

Opower, which provides the customers of some electric utilities with monthly energy-saving reports, uses what is called social behavioral science (or social psychology). Its monthly reports show homeowners how they compare to others in their area or community, and the company says that 85 percent of the people receiving its information take energy-saving action. People change their behavior to be a more normal member of a group. It’s a form of self-imposed peer pressure.

Grounded Power has done the same in trials with utilities in its home state of Massachusetts, and like Opower, the company points to goal-setting as a way to encourage consumers to achieve energy savings. Goal setting is the cornerstone of successful programs such as Weight Watchers, in which dieters set realistic goals and gather to compare results. (Grounded Power has just been purchased by energy management company Tendril.)

“People who set goals for themselves cut their energy consumption by 9 to 10 percent,” says Laskey.

Powerhouse Dyanamic's eMonitor shows a carbon footprint comparison on its web-based interface..

So the secret to energy savings is social pressure? “We’ve taken something that’s invisible and boring, and we’re getting people to talk about it,” says Laskey, who says recipients of Opower reports share the information with their families. “If you want people to make investments in energy efficiency, the first step is getting people to talk about it.”

Ryan Parker, director of marketing for Intel Embedded and Communications Group, foresees social media sites becoming hubs for energy efficiency information and behavior. “There may be networks of like-minded people providing comparisons, competitive and not.” He cites a Facebook farm game, in which members compete in the growing of crops. So why not energy savings, too? This is already done on college campuses where dorm buildings are equipped with energy monitors.

So energy efficiency can be sold as a game, or as a social scene, or as a subtle form of peer pressure. And subtle is exactly what energy efficiency has to be. It doesn’t quite yet sell on its own, because many consumers are just becoming aware of their home’s energy and electricity consumption—and that they can save money.

More than Energy Monitoring

That’s why the latest round of energy monitoring systems from companies such as Cisco, Intel and others add other functions to energy management. Intel’s calls its product a “Home Dashboard,” rather than a Home Energy Dashboard. It sports a simple clock on the face and performs other functions such as video messaging via a built-in camera.

Intel sees its system as part of a whole-house ecosystem that also uses voltage, temperature and humidity sensors to generate much richer data. “[Another] thing we see is how do you analyze the data? People don’t understand how to use it. So we want to translate that data into something people understand,” says Intel’s Parker.

Cisco’s countertop touchscreen also comes cloaked as a clock. And both companies will first look to the utilities and service provider market.  Comcast, ADT and Verizon are all looking to market low-cost energy management solutions to their customers. “To really gain momentum in the consumer market, [energy management] should be a nonintrusive service and part of something else. If it’s part of home security or something else, that’s more compelling to consumers,” says Larry O’Connell, consumer energy product manager of Cisco’s Prosumer Business Unit.

Both Cisco and Intel foresee a retail market for their products—my guess is within a year or two—and Intel is more likely to OEM its products.

A System that Suggests

Energy monitor makers are also pushing recommendations to consumers. Some are basic to start, such as suggesting a new refrigerator or dryer if the one being monitored uses a high amount of electricity. And over time, the recommendation engines will become better and more customized. “We’re looking to provide more information on how to improve efficiency,” says Michael Terrell, energy policy counsel for Google, which is offering its Google PowerMeter software free to utilities and to retail market vendors (TED and Current Cost monitors work with it.)

“We don’t present data. We present usable information, like ‘Your fridge is using more energy. Maybe it’s time to service?’” says Scott Ballantyne, vice president of marketing for Tendril, which is making energy management systems for utilities and eyeing retail and consumer electronics channels for 2011.

Powerhouse Dynamics’ eMonitor, now available through the custom channel, provides alerts if it senses a significant increase in power use by an appliance about to fail, for example. Again, it’s not just monitoring energy. The eMonitor is poised as a step-up or more upscale monitoring system, capable of measuring electric loads at the circuit level and coming with a subscription for recurring revenue. The eMonitor interface also sprinkles in a basic carbon footprint comparison (social psychology) and basic suggestions.

“We’re looking at it as beyond energy management,” says Martin Flusberg, the CEO of Powerhouse Dynamics. “A car tells you tire pressure and all other kinds of things going on with engine and the vehicle. But think of a house, and you don’t have that. We want to track appliances and send alerts when things happen, like when a well pump or sump pump dies.”

The bottom line these companies are seeking: Energy monitoring and energy management should be one function of a system—like a larger home control system. And energy management functions should be integrated into these systems seamlessly. Subtle, remember?

“Our goal is that they don’t come and look at our dashboard—that they’re comfortable that our system is monitoring their home, and they come to us when we send alerts or opportunities for appliance rebates, and a monthly report card,” says Flusberg.

Eventually, energy management systems will recede far into the background, fully automating home energy savings by turning devices off, raising and lower shades to save on heating, cooling and lighting costs—and only being visible when sending alerts. And all of it will be done to a homeowner’s preprogrammed preferences.

“It has to be ‘set it and forget it,’” says Cisco’s O’Connell.

This article also appears in the October issue of CE Pro and at CEpro.com.

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