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Energy use feedback: worth pursuing on mass scale?

A new report attempts to synthesize recent studies on large-scale, real-time energy use feedback pilots in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

"Results from Recent Real-time Feedback Studies," by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Environment (ACEEE), concludes that energy savings depend on a number of variables.

The  ACEEE report uses different terminology than is often employed in smart grid discussions, and the 28-page report contains much nuance, so I'd suggest giving it a read. But a few points are worth noting.

First, the basis for the report. The introduction noted that a major question lingers over demand side management: "How to better engage customers with their energy usage? What methods work best to deliver information in order to enable behavior change? How long [might] any effect be reasonably expected to last? (The old "persistence" question.) And: How best to measure and evaluate any savings as part of a utility energy efficiency portfolio?"

ACEEE used the term "Intelligent Efficiency"—"the synergistic effect that emerges from the interaction between information and communication technology."

"Technological innovation is an impressive driver of efficiency gains," according to the report, "over time, however, it has become clear that without some understanding of human factors, the full potential of energy efficiency will never be unlocked."

The report suggested that smart meter pushback may stem in part from the one-way communication of end-use data to the utility. Further, the more devices that are added to a residential household's load, the murkier the use picture becomes and the more difficult it is to control use.

Whether an end-user is likely to save energy using real-time information feedback depends on their "sensitivity," a term that may or may not be akin to the "early adopter" motivation. Devices providing energy use feedback may aid the process, depending on their design and whether that facilitates the actions taken by end users. Engagement with energy use information feedback may be helped or hindered by "household dynamics." Persistence of behavioral changes remains a key area of enquiry.

One conclusion of the report that's relevant to U.S. utilities today: "The question remains of whether efforts to entice the 'less sensitive' to save through feedback programs are a good utility investment. Based on the very limited data from the nine pilots ... the cost of providing real-time feedback remains high."

The ACEEE report found that results ranged from zero to nearly 20 percent savings, with average savings of nearly 4 percent. An anomalous finding, not included in those numbers, came from Northern Ireland, where real-time energy use was combined with prepayment meters. Users in that pilot tended to be low income, the cost of their energy was high and the market offered no competition.

The study identified three "points along the human-technology spectrum" that pilot studies should take into account: technology adoption, effective installation and continued use. One solution: require professional installation of feedback-related devices and training in the devices.

The three U.S. pilot programs examined by this report derived from studies at Commonwealth Edison, Stanford, Calif. and a Google PowerMeter experiment (as you probably know, Google has now folded it PowerMeter effort) and a Cape Light study on Cape Cod.

The parents in the audience will not be surprised to find out that households with several occupants—in particular, people under the age of 15—found energy savings difficult. The presence of pre- or early teens made it difficult to maintain a consistent strategy.

Interestingly, participants in the three U.S. pilots said that energy use feedback made them more aware of their consumption, but it did not make them more aware of the resulting actions they took as a result of that information. That suggested to the report authors that actions that led to savings may have become unconscious habits. Also, those who saved the most energy were more likely to spend time on an online portal that provided energy use feedback information. "Therefore, the frequency and type of interaction with the home energy monitoring system appeared to be a key to getting energy savings," the report stated.

As I said, have a look for yourself. One challenge researchers have found is drawing conclusions across studies that aren't uniformly designed to produce aggregate insights. But the ACEEE report does focus on questions that many in the power industry are asking.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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