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Gradually Greening: Empowerment through Laziness

by Worldchanging Canada local blogger, Karl Schroeder:

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There is a secret to changing your behaviour. The trick is not to trust your own willpower. Instead, arrange conditions outside yourself such that the desired new behaviour is always your laziest option.


Case in point: Canadian company Blue Line Innovations' PowerCost Monitor. This is a dead-simple little device that looks like a desktop clock. All it does is tell you the time, the temperature--and how much electricity the building you're in is using right now, in dollars and cents.

This device asks no commitment from you; it doesn't require that you adopt a creed, renounce your friends or give up eating meat. It just gently tells you the actual cost of your behaviours. If you left a lamp on in the bedroom, you'll be able to see the effect. More subtly, if you have a lot of energy vampires plugged into your power outlets--things like cell phone chargers and other transformers--the monitor will show you what they're really doing to your electricity consumption. Just having the monitor there should cause your behaviours to change, reducing your power consumption. That's the theory, anyway.

I decided to test that theory by purchasing a PowerCost Monitor and trying it out.

I bought the monitor from save-electricity.ca. Don't worry if you're outside Canada, Blue Line will be happy to take your money and ship the unit anywhere in North America. It was simple to order on-line, and cost me about $180 once you factor in taxes and shipping charges. Blue Line shipped it by courier, which meant I had to make an extra trip to pick it up, but that was a small inconvenience.

The PowerCost Monitor has two main pieces: a "sensor unit" which you strap to the outside of your house's power meter, and a display unit that you keep inside. The display unit is about four by six inches and can be hung on a wall or left on the mantlepiece (which is what I've done). Helpfully, the Monitor package ships with a complete set of batteries for both units, plus a very helpful and clear instructional video (on CD) so you can be up and running within minutes of opening the box.

Well--you might. It took me a few days to get the thing to work. The sensor unit has a little arm that sticks out over the face of your power meter. It reads the slowly-rotating disk of mechanical meters, or interfaces through an optical port to digital units. The problem (for the mechanical version, at least) is that the optical sensor on the little arm has to be aligned perfectly to bounce its light off the thin edge of the turning disk. It took me a few tries to get this right, and part of the problem was that I had trouble interpreting the information coming in to the display unit.

The idea here is that the display unit tells you in dollars and cents what your power consumption is. When I synched the units the first time, I got a reading of $0.04/hour, which seemed awfully low to me. (Blue Line's promotional photos show a PowerCost unit registering $0.63/hour.) What's more, the manual says that $0.04 is the minimum that the monitor is capable of registering.

I walked around the house turning on lights, but of course I've invested in compact-fluorescents in recent years, so that didn't make much difference. There seemed to be a spike when the furnace came on, but it was hard to tell because there's at least a half-minute time lag between any changes in consumption rate, and those changes showing up on the monitor. Also, there seemed to be unexplained spikes and occasional monitor failures when it read only $--- instead of a number.

Standing on a chair next to the meter and painstakingly adjusting the level of the sensor arm finally made the difference--as did actually studying my power bill and figuring out what my average consumption should really look like. Doing this revealed that $0.04/hour wasn't out of line with my house's actual draw, but with the sensor properly adjusted it quickly began to show an average of $0.05-$0.06/hour. In the evenings, when we're doing laundry with the TV on and the computer is awake, it edges up to $0.12/hour. I now know that my furnace fan uses $0.02-$0.03 per hour to run, and my hair dryer, $0.09/hour.

In Toronto we have two-tier power billing: above a certain threshold of power use per month, your hourly rate increases. The PowerCost Monitor accommodates such billing practices, which actually gives me a specific target to shoot for: keep consumption below the threshold. That should be fairly easy during the winter, when the threshold is higher; I'm looking forward to seeing if it's possible with the summer rate.

On the whole my experience has been positive, but I can make two observations based on my experience so far. First, the Monitor's not really a great tool for moment-by-moment monitoring of your household. There's the time lag, plus the fact people who are power-conscious already will generally be aware of their power vampires (things like incandescent bulbs). The monitor will help you identify outrageous drains (basement freezers come to mind) and let you know what they cost in you per month in actual dollars and cents, but an already-efficient household may find it hard to shave much off what's already been done by eg. replacing your bulbs. The monitor is likely to be more useful for me as a tool for gradually changing your consumption habits, because it will allow you to compare subtle changes over long periods of time. (I'll report back in six months and hopefully this time next year on my own experience.)

Secondly, my household is already operating close to the lower limit of the monitor's sensitivity. Small changes in our power use aren't as visible to us as they would be to someone living in, say, a monster house. If you've got a big house with a freezer in the basement, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, computers and other appliances, baseboard heaters and lots of incandescents or (God forbid) 300-watt halogen floor lamps, then any changes you make are going to show up dramatically on this unit--but as a habitual overconsumer, you're probably less likely to care enough to invest in a monitor.

On the other hand, the unit might prove eye-opening to over-consumers precisely because it does register the problem in dollars and cents. It seems a no-brainer that all new houses should come equipped with a monitor like this one, as a way of establishing good power-consumption habits right from the day that people move in.

Which brings me back to the notion of empowerment through laziness. It's my personal opinion that environmentalism has never really gotten traction with most people because it styled itself as a creed: a philosophy and associated lifestyle that you had to adopt. It's like converting to a religion; recent studies in how religions work (socially) indicate that the successful ones demand some sort of adherence price be paid by converts, whether that be shaving your head, renouncing certain foods or whatever. A steep price presupposes some level of commitment on the part of your converts. The downside is that while you keep the riffraff out, you guarantee that not everybody will want to convert. I can't tell you whether hard-core environmentalism actually adopted this strategy, or whether public perception was that as a distinct creed, environmentalism must naturally have such commitment cost. The net result is the same: the riffraff were kept out.

At this point, we want the riffraff. Hell, we want everybody we can get. We don't care whether people believe in some environmental ethos--all we care about is changing their behaviours.

Social and cultural revolutions are hard. In fact, this one is almost impossible within the critical timeframe of the current climate-change crisis. We just don't have time to foment a social revolution. Luckily, we don't need such a sea change. And when you realize that you can ignore the hard stuff--changing people's minds--in favour of just tweaking their behaviours, then suddenly the future doesn't look so bleak.

Imagine if all residential power meters came with an in-house monitor that told you the dollars and cents you're using. Imagine a mileage-cost meter for your car that works the same way. And one for your water. You don't have to convert people to make them environmentalists; all you have to do is make the previously unclear visible, and make the right behaviour into the laziest behaviour.

Great social revolutions may be started by the hard work of the few; but they're completed by leveraging the self-interest of the many.

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Comments

I live aboard a sailboat. All systems are self-contained, i.e. I'm not plugged in to any outside sources of power. Onboard, I have a battery monitor. With it, I can see, to the tenth of an amp hour, how much power I am using at any given moment. Unlike the units installed in a typical home, however, mine also tells me how much charge I have left in my batteries. If I leave the lights on or otherwise squander my electricity, I run out. Lights out. Until the batteries are recharged by the sun, wind, or alternator, no more electricity.

I've often thought about what it would be like if the same were true for a typical home on the grid. For those hooked up to a utility, excessive use will hurt the pocketbook, but, for the most part, the juice keeps flowing. Monitoring the flow can help alter behavior, but add the risk of running out of power at the end of the day and behavior might change much quicker.


Posted by: Kevin Rose on 10 Mar 07

green yellow red then.

green is per capita goal, with variations for proven home equipment requirements. normal price.

yellow is overage. roaming-charge-like price increase.

red is severe. punitive pricing with the risk of getting power cut if there's a shortage for green or yellow customers. nothing more than top of red is available.


Posted by: hibiscus on 10 Mar 07

Sounds expensive and no more accurate than doing a little math.

You can get a free booklet that tells you how to read your electricity meter on line and just multiply those numbers by your rate and you have the same information. To know what a device costs just check the label on the device or look it up on line.

If you want to get more involved residential Electricty meters and Power monitors sell for about $20 to Electric utilities. They sell their old ones to junk guys for less than $1 each and you can pick them them up at Flea Markets and ham Fests pretty cheap.


Posted by: Roland Provost on 10 Mar 07

This is an excellent discussion ... both in terms of the 'test' and the overall discussion.

Writ large, the research seems to show that smart feedback systems like this can have an aggregate 5% reduction in energy use -- with additional programs (such as home energy audits, demand-side management, otherwise) contributing to lower it even further.

My perspective is at: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/11/22/13351/909

There were some excellent discussions of this at TheOilDrum: http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/11/2/02426/1664


Posted by: A Siegel on 11 Mar 07

I'd like to have a device that monitors power use on each circuit in my apartment. With recent advances in miniaturized sensors, maybe the circuit breakers in a panel could include devices that measure and transmit data to my computer. This would allow for a fairly easy retrofit.

I could use the feedback to tell me which cycles on my dishwasher and dryer use the least energy; where most of my energy usage goes, etc. How much am I reducing my energy consumption and carbon emissions by turning off my electric water heater after the morning showers each day?


To quote a business management principle I've heard, "Anything that can be measured can be managed."

Along with the real-time pricing service offered here in Chicago by our power company, I think this kind of monitoring could help reduce my bill, and environmental impact, by well over the 5% mentioned above.


Posted by: Steven Hult on 11 Mar 07

Another good motivator is competition.

I saw an online blurb for a TV show about a Hollywood actor who's gung-ho into environmentalism. He knows just how much power his solar setup can feed back into the grid. He helped a friend put in a solar system -- and the friend's system is going to put out more power! Oh no! Outgunned! Outpowered! A macho macho man wouldn't be happy about this ...

(No, I didn't watch the show -- I turned off my cable recently, because I just wasn't watching it.)

When people are bragging about their humongous solar grids and not the horsepower in their SUVs, the world will be a better place.


Posted by: Karen Lofstrom on 11 Mar 07

Consumpion monitoring systems should be the standard in every home, just like thermostats are. Can you imagine if each apartment dweller had access to a prominent readout of how much electricity and water were being used at all times?

As you point out, those who purchase devices like the PowerCost Monitor may already be interested in conservation. Where we'll see true benefits is with others.


Posted by: eric on 12 Mar 07

Where do you get your food ???


Posted by: jmygann on 12 Mar 07

How about this for a REAL LAZY change:

Wouldn't it make sense for society to push more and more people to work from home? Heck most of us spend 70-100% of our time in front of computers nowadays at work, why not do all of this from home. We have everything we need to make the perfect virtual office (IP phones, webcams, etc etc).

I'm almost certain the problem is not the workers here, but the corporations who are afraid of pushing too much for this move as it triggers chain reactions (if one employee wants to work from home, most will also ask for similar conditions eventually). So governments should create some kind of incentives for both companies and workers. Tax breaks maybe? How about as much tax breaks as gasoline you didn't spent? That would be awesome, I'd sign up right away, I'm 100% lazy and proud to be!!!

Another point and a follow up on this idea, I think we should start making "community offices", basically spaces where people would meet to work closer to their home rather than strictly working at home. What I mean by this is that there's some cost overhangs when working at home (equipment, PCs, furniture perhaps, etc) whereas if we could share office spaces with other "work at home" people it would be nice, granted as long as these "work at home communities" would be close enough to your actual home (for you to be able to walk for example).

Having worked at home for a few years I know for a fact that one of the factors making working at home difficult is simply solitude, so this would fix that issue. Heck you could even go to that shared office only when you want to...

Anyways, I think we can definitely find fun and lazy changes like this to give our environment a break. Besides let's face it we're not happy right now, everyone's in their little bubbles and there's no sense of community anymore...


Posted by: Bruno D. on 13 Mar 07

I installed the Power Cost Monitor in about 5 minutes. I have found that using it in the dollars and cents mode isn't nearly as useful as using it in the kW mode, where it accumulates kWh and shows a real time reading of current usage in kilowatts. I'm trying to reduce power consumption, not cost. Cost is an effect of the reduction of consumption, not the other way around.

The device is useful since not every power company has any kind of centralized capture of readings. We're still manually read every month.

Karen, the actor was Ed Begley, Jr. and his buddy, who has greater capacity now, was Bill Nye (the Science Guy).


Posted by: Steve Wehrenberg on 26 Mar 07

My firm has been providing utility management advice to commercial customers for nearly 8 years, and I have been in the energy industry itself for over 25 (omg that seems long now).

I would have to agree that what gets measured gets done... but also, that a user-pay world is very much needed. Our studies have shown that an apartment building that installs submeters, reads those meters, and bills the tenants directly for how much energy they use will reduce its usage by over 15%. That's an enormous savings!!!

More information can be found in a case study on our website, www.solution105.com

Cheers!

Chris


Posted by: Chris Vilcsak on 27 Mar 07



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