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Can Twitter Help Us To Save Energy At Home?

By Pete Davies

Does a display of information help us to save energy? Or will it take something more?

There's a house that tweets all of it's energy usage. And that's really just the beginning of the information it dumps onto Twitter every day. Even the mousetraps are wired into the matrix...

Residential energy use accounts for a little over 20% of US energy consumption and therefore represents a great opportunity for savings and efficiency. It's no wonder then that huge companies like Google, Microsoft and GE, together with an ever-growing list of start-ups want to help you save energy at home. If they can save you energy, they'll likely be saving you money too. And these days saving money is a big business opportunity!

We talk a lot about home energy usage with TerraPass customers and I've been thrilled to see the enthusiasm with which our customers embrace products such as the Kill A Watt and Home Powercost Monitor. But let's be honest, these kinds of accessories are for the fanatics and my hunch is most of the people that buy them replaced their bulbs with CFLs long ago -- they're probably onto the LEDs by now. These are not products for mass-adoption, more's the pity.

In reality, the American household is going to need a little more help and hand-holding. As the home energy management products and start-ups jockey for room in a crowded space, here are the four trends I see emerging:

1. Personal action, efficiency
Not much technology involved in this one, but worth mentioning all the same as there are plenty of those that believe we should all be able to realize significant savings simply by conserving our energy use. Tips abound on the internet, from the simplest (turn the lights off) to some of the more laborious (washing your air conditioner filters). The problem here of course is that if it were worth our while, we'd all be doing these things already -- but people are willing to spend those few cents for the convenience. Maybe if energy prices rise significantly that might change.

2. Spend some to save some
Whether it's covering your roof in solar panels or simply installing a programmable thermostat, there are all manner of investments we can make to improve energy consumption in our homes. Subsidizing more efficient appliances and larger-scale retrofits is a favorite of governments, especially when it creates "green jobs" in a down economy.

3. See it: know the real-time cost
I've seen a couple of different people explain this idea using a grocery store metaphor.. so I'll do my best to replicate that here. When you go to the grocery store, you push the cart around, checking the prices of items as you go. If there's something you want to buy, you pick it up and put it in the cart. When you're done you go the checkout and pay for everything in your cart.

So far, so good. But how is this relevant to energy? Well when you buy energy from your utility the experience is totally different. You use the energy through the month and a few weeks later you get the bill for everything you've used. It's as if you've had no prices on any of the items in the grocery store and once you get to checkout, you must buy everything in your cart.

Well there are a number of companies working on being able to tell you the real-time prices. It requires varying degrees of technology and the co-operation of utilities. The end goal is that if you know how much energy you're using in real-time (and how much it's costing you), you're likely to use less.

4. Automation
Strange confession time. When I was little I used to think it would be very cool to have a huge panel of switches by my bed. From here, I'd be able to control everything in the house: lights, faucets, tv, radios; I could even turn the dishwasher off when it was keeping me awake at night.

A few decades later and this is becoming something of a reality. Instead of a panel of switches it's a touchscreen (or your iPhone perhaps) from which you can control various devices around the house. You may even want to program them so they come on when electricity is cheapest.

In it's most advanced forms, this technology will allow your utility to control some of the biggest power-hogs you have and smooth the peaks of the local electricity demand, saving them a considerable amount of money, and generously handing a little of those savings on to you too.


So what's going to work? And how long will it take? Which of these do you think is most likely to influence energy savings in your home? And at what cost?

This piece originally appeared in The TerraPass Footprint.

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Interesting. I'll tweet this.

Posted by: Offgrid-Living on 23 Jul 09

I like the idea of #3, the real-time cost. It might be interesting to roll this up along with forecasting and automation too. For instance, if the forecast is that electricity will be cheaper at 2am, it'd be sweet if I could program my dishwasher (not entirely like a VCR) to wash my dishes at 2am instead of 8pm, when the difference in utility between doing it now and later is negligible to me but I could benefit from the cost savings.

Posted by: Karen on 24 Jul 09

There's an old saying that says: "What gets measured gets done." This is an example of a technology that brings a real time measurement of energy use and money expenditure that would make it difficult for energy- or money-concsious people to ignore.

Posted by: Oakleigh Solargroupies on 25 Jul 09

Very cool article. I posted this video on our website and tweeted it. The video is interesting.

Posted by: Amy Jewell / Cirklagirl on 26 Jul 09

I have been studying this area from the behavioral economics perspective and a couple of observations may be of interest.

1. The bill payer may have the greatest motivation to reduce consumption but they are not the only one at home/work place who uses the energy and all parties need to be engaged in the exercise.

2. What get's measured 'in real time' gets managed more effectively. Including the context of how energy is being used within a budget/forecast framework is essential.

3. Individual self-control is the key ingredient to success, helped along with catching people doing things right, sensible personal incentives and other management tools to encourage full participation.

Systems that work with the predicatably irrational human condition in way's that are meaningful to the individual, that are S.M.A.R.T, specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and timed will work to change behaviour.

Posted by: Mark Harrison on 28 Jul 09

We love the concept of #3 on your post, the real-time cost. Currently we can have monitors installed that gauge exactly how much power your consuming minute by minute, so by contacting your power company and finding the peak/ off peak times you can set your appliances to run at the off peak times( where possible).

Posted by: Martin gosford on 17 Sep 09

OK so you talk about usage of energy from "fossil" fuels and the like. What about human energy in an ever increasing demanding world that insists on answers NOW, NOW, NOW! What about peace of mind and time to plan and do things at your own pace without some electronic divice beeping at you, texting you because they want to say Hi or that they are taking a shower or wandering thru their garden or better yet going to the bathroom. People's lives are already rudely interupted inpart because they can't turn off the cell phone. Movies, Concerts, dates, all get intrupted even though there is voice mail. My own daughter fell victum to this addiction after traveling from Europe with no sleep for almost 48 hr; someone had to call her at 2am our time. She thought she was still in Europe and fell out of the top bunk of her bed smashing her thumb causing me to have to run to Walgreens and miss work the next day after being up with her. I am tired of technology demanding my time NOW and interupting my personal space. We need to slow down and just say NO.

Posted by: Alicia on 17 Oct 09

So you're using all this energy to monitor the use of energy and think that makes sense??? Common sense would work a lot better... turn off what you're not using. Why would you need energy to kill a mouse and then tell you that it did??? Geez, sounds like a colossal WASTE of energy to me!

Posted by: JG on 17 Oct 09

I agree that saving energy is a conscious effort. There can be several ways that it can be facilitated. Some of these appear in the article, but it is not always possible to suit those facilitations that with your needs. The bottom line of energy conservation to my mind is to "conserve whenever and whatever you can and don't waste". It is a responsibility that each of us has to take individually and as a society.

Posted by: Sabeen on 18 Oct 09

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