By Scott G. McNall
William James, the famous American psychologist and philosopher, said that the great flywheel of society is habit: we keep doing things one way because we have always done them that way. We flip on the light switch or turn on the faucet and expect immediate results. We do not think about the fossil fuel required to produce our energy or where our water comes from. But, as energy costs rise and demands increase for the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we need people to be aware of the consequences of their actions and to conserve energy. But changing habits is hard. One solution may be real-time meters that make energy visible.
Real-time meters allow the homeowner (or apartment owner if there is a separate meter) to view in real time their energy use. The idea is that the sticker shock of seeing how much money you are spending will cause you to change your behavior. Two of the best known monitors on the market are the ones sold by Blue Line (PowerCost Monitor) and Black and Decker (Power Monitor). Once you have everything set up, and you’ve entered the amount you are being charged per kilowatt hour, you can see the energy spiking as you turn on your furnace, or air conditioner, or washer and dryer. But what does one do with this information?
Studies have shown that in-home displays or hand-held devices are often left unused, placed in a drawer, with the batteries run down. Why? One reason is that most people don’t know what to do with the information. You don’t know, without a lot of experimentation, which appliances are the energy hogs and they won’t cue you to the “vampire” loads from your television or computer, unless you turn everything else in the house off. But what can a person do to use less energy, other than turning off the power? A new business model has been developed based on the assumption that what homeowners really need are specific suggestions about how to manage energy use. Enter the software giants.
Blue Line has partnered with both Google and Microsoft Hohm™ to provide a wireless system (roughly $250) that can send radio waves from your real-time meter to either Google or Microsoft. Once everything is set up you can create an account with Microsoft or Google and they will provide historical data about your energy use, suggestions on how to reduce your consumption, and a list of local vendors, who can install energy-saving devices.
There is another business model being developed that uses real-time metering and the internet to provide an energy consultant, not the homeowner, with refined data about what is going on in the home, including which appliances are drawing power. The consultant uses the info to make recommendations to the homeowner for a fee of around $350.
Utility companies, energy consultation companies, and software giants are all trying to figure out how to make money by providing the homeowner with energy useful energy information. Google wants utility companies to provide real-time data to all customers under the assumption that consumers will then turn to companies like Google to have their data interpreted, and to be given suggestions about what to do to save money. Behavioral research suggests that it will be hard to change our habits but providing people with the information they need for action is probably the first step. The big unanswered question, however, is what information do people actually need and in what form to break old habits?
Scott G. McNall is Professor of Sociology and Senior Advisor to the President for Sustainability at California State University, Chico.
Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.