Which Works Better: Behavior Change or Automation?

June 21, 2011
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Do comparisons work, or should we rely on automation to help people be more energy efficient. Powerhouse Dyanamic's eMonitor shows a carbon footprint comparison on its web-based interface.

Recent reports show two distinct approaches that are encouraging consumers to be more energy efficient: behavior change through social science and set-it-and-forget-it automation. At least the feeling is that they’re distinct schools of thought.

One on hand, there’s EcoFactor, which says that its intelligent platform, which uses data and individual home conditions to automatically adjust two-way communicating thermostats without sacrificing comfort levels, has reduced the energy consumption of heating and cooling systems by 17 percent—basically by taking as much thought out of energy management for the consumer as possible. EcoFactor can work with utilities and home service providers to automate energy savings for consumers.

On the other hand, there’s Opower, which works with utilities to provide personalized Home Energy Reports to individual households, comparing their energy usage to others in their communities. Opower says its software platform will help U.S. consumers save one terawatt hour of energy by the end of 2012—the equivalent of taking 100,000 average U.S. homes “off the grid” for a full year.

Info and Automation

EcoFactor’s cloud-based service uses the home’s broadband service to connect with a communicating thermostat. Using the thermostat as a sensor, EcoFactor identifies each home’s unique thermal characteristics, while also taking into account occupant preferences and weather patterns, and uses this information to determine how to most efficiently heat or cool the home at all times. The EcoFactor system automatically makes the necessary changes to the thermostat to maintain the desired comfort level of the inhabitants while delivering significant overall savings. The homeowner can reprogram or override the settings at any time.

The platform’s use of weather data and thermal characteristics makes a lot of sense. So does automating climate levels around the home, because:

  1. Heating and cooling are the biggest users of energy in a home.
  2. People don’t even take the time to set programmable thermostats, so we better automate the process as much as possible.

As EcoFactor cofounder Scott Hublou said in a SmartGridNews.com post:

“Long-term results won’t come from behavior changes. They will come from automation.”

EcoFactor says its platform also provides information on a home’s energy use and can identify malfunctioning HVAC equipment, which can help people save even more energy.

The Power of Social Science

Opower offers utility customers energy usage information and suggestions to save more energy, though a key to its approach is to use social science—or social psychology if you prefer—to encourage more energy-efficient behaviors. This is done through a simple comparison Opower provides utility customers to others in a community. When people see that they use more energy than others, they tend to conserve, because people want to be normal and fit into a group.

I can personally attest that this works, through a comparison I receive on my Powerhouse Dyanamics eMonitor electricity monitoring interface, which shows an average carbon footprint of someone in my state, versus mine. I pride myself on not running with the pack, but it’s always, always the first thing I look at. And God help the teenage energy users in my home when our footprint gets as big as the state average.

So Which is Better?

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be which approach is better, but how can we use both social science to encourage more efficient behaviors—such buying energy-saving two-way communicating thermostats—and then automating the heck out of them so people don’t have to think constantly about conservation.

Opower’s social sciences approach can drive large-scale change, largely through utility programs. And social science tactics like social proof, normalcy and goal setting can be powerful marketing tools for those selling energy efficiency products and services. We are bound to see much more of these strategies as we go forward.

But smaller scale changes, such as enabling people to become as energy efficient as possible in their homes, will result from systems that enable automation and for consumers to set-it-and-forget-it.

Technology and social psychology should not be opposing strategies in green and energy efficient marketing. They should be used together. In the next few years, many of the same homes receiving Opower comparisons may be equipped not only with two-way smart meters, but with intelligent and automated energy management systems as well.

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