Energy Efficiency, Technology and User Behaviour

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December 29, 2014

Technology continues to move forward and many of the new platforms and products have shown they can save energy. However, even with all the hype about Smart Connected Real Estate, the quick energy reductions gained through lighting fixture luminaire retrofits by swapping out fluorescents and incandescent bulbs in favour of LEDs’ - a major barrier to achieving long lasting results is still the quirky behaviour of the occupants and building operators.

For those focussed upon residential efficiency, its’ path to success is even more difficult. Yes, we have installed smart meters: given incentives to wash your clothes and dishes as off peak hours: offered set-back thermostats to conserve heat and cooling: given out low level shower heads to reduce hot water use and made the use of incandescent light bulbs a thing of the past. People simply ignore information, refuse no-cost improvements and thwart measures that are installed. Even when they change behaviours, they often revert unless continually reminded.

Will the brain ever be as programmable as a thermostat? We are talking about hardware, software and ‘wetware’ – the latter being the puzzling stuff between people’s ears that make their behaviours so hard to manage. (Heard this word at an energy conference last year)
Behaviour based energy efficiency programs have targeted a variety of actions. They might encourage homeowners to wash clothes in cold water – like the current Tide advertisements – a subtle reminder to save energy; tell office workers to turn off computers at night, or remind building operators to perform regular maintenance on mechanical systems or even yearly benchmarking for new LEED building certifications. Most of these programs have a common thread – they target actions that are hard to accomplish with technology alone, and impossible to scale up without it. A recent experience with building operators has also shown the need to add employee incentives and monthly goals to the mix.

Behaviour based methods maybe very exciting. While the current focus is upon the design of very smart buildings with cool technology – lots of sensors and dashboards spewing out data, other alternatives might be ready for consideration. Analyst firm McKinsey & Company has quantified the savings potential at 16 to 20% of total USA residential energy consumption that can be affected by behaviour intervention.

A company Opower is a publicly held Software-as-a-Service company that provides cloud- based software to the utility industry and transforms the way utilities relate to their customers. Working with 95+ utilities and serving 50+ million homes in 9 countries, Opower’s customer engagement platform positions utilities as trusted energy advisors to the customers they serve. Opower's software provides customers with better information about their energy consumption, along with personalized ways to save energy and money. Opower's technology platform analyzes more than 300 billion meter reads to deliver its services, and has created enough energy savings through behavior change to power all the homes in a city of 1 million people for a year. The average customer receiving the Opower platform has cut energy usage by more than 2.5 %.

Their approach is to offer customers to see their own energy consumption – they compare their energy consumption with their neighbors. The results so far have been encouraging. Comparative energy reports leverage a simple principle of psychology known as social norms. The same process has shown results when adopted by commercial building wonders and building managers. These types of comparisons have not been without their detractors who never want to believe that they are doing worse than the building next door. If the data can first be used to compare building within the same owners portfolio and then expanded to include

competition then we may effectively move forward. However, do not ignore the tenants – find ways to change their behaviour.

Do people spend much time thinking about their energy use? Some industry studies show that this is only in the range of 6 to 9 minutes a year. Do consumers study their month energy bills? Not really-a vast majority have these programmed for automatic bank payment. When utilities started charging for monthly paper invoices a significant shift occurred.

Perhaps the most important energy saving technology devices are thermostats and lighting control. On a combined basis, these two help control over 75% of energy consumption in facilities. Yes, we have shifted to LEDs’, lower energy fluorescents, but few if any widespread adoption of lighting controls except for sensors in washrooms and other remote areas. Cities across the world are still lit up at night with commercial office lighting. The penetration of residential lighting controls is still in its infancy. (issues of cost; retrofit issues and lack of consumer interest).

A thermostat according to many industry experts casually manages 50% of the total energy load of an average home. That means that 50% of your bill is derived because the thermostat says to your air conditioner or the heater, ‘turn on or turnoff’ (like the clapper’). Nevertheless, the potential for thermostats as the right technology still has critical shortcomings. Most thermostats are not user friendly (except perhaps NEST). Instructions and set-up procedures created by engineers, with little understanding of those with older eyes and not accustomed to computer set-up instructions. The result is similar to residential burglar alarm and related devices – turned off, no batteries – they simply lose their ultimate value. The reader might want to ask their HVAC technician about the extent of these issues today both in the residential and commercial world.

Technology’s highest value for energy based energy efficiency, though, is in its ability to validate savings from utility programs. Smart meters deliver consumption data at intervals in minutes instead of months. Back-end analytics systems crunch that ‘big data’ to prove results and glean insights. However, we are still a long way from having the answers. While here in Ontario we now get monthly bar charts showing previous years and so forth – the increased charges for distribution; reduction of fixed asset debt and increased costs for green energy has only led to further consumer confusion. We may not want to admit that the overall energy efficiency program has not been what we had hoped for. The plaudits based a lot of their strategy on the ‘information deficit model’ – This framework said that people did not understand energy and just need to be educated. Today we know that the more educated a person feels, the less likely they are to conserve. Information is important, but it is not the only thing. There has to be reasons to change. One might be social ranking – others will be simple to use affordable technology – while commercially it can be to create incentives related to energy efficiency. 

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