Feedback systems … a key to a better energy future?

Having a readout on miles per gallon gets most drivers to drive better — in ways that increase safety and reduce fuel usage. With minimal additional cost, these feedback systems can help to improve fleet fuel efficiency through fostering changed behavior by the users (the drivers).  This is an impact that better car design, hybrid technologies, and similar fuel efficiency systems do not inherently have.  Thus, this is an additive effect on top of any other efforts to improve that fuel efficiency.

Improved car (transportation) fuel efficiency is critical to Winning the Oil End Game but is only a portion of the challenge of reversing our greenhouse-gas emissions patterns and turning away from the most dire Catastrophic Climate Change implications.  

Real-time feedback works in cars and is increasingly part of new car dashboards.  Where else could we install real-time feedback systems into our daily lives to change energy usage patterns and reduce energy use?  Real opportunities exist in the home …  

The dashboard indicators of ongoing fuel efficiency seem to have real impacts on driving patterns – and, therefore,  intended or not, there seems to be a corollary effect of dashboard fuel efficiency “Fuel economy feedback in vehicles is one of the low-hanging fruits of green(er) transportation. When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty obvious what causes good or bad fuel economy, but that’s exactly the problem: Most people don’t stop to think about it, or at least not while they are driving. They need constant reminders. Even while gasping at the pump most people seem to think that their current fuel consumption average is mostly out of their control, a factor of the car they drive only.” As someone elsenoted, “… the feedback screen in a hybrid car, which shows the driver vividly how his driving habits affect his fuel consumption. The result in the case of hybrids is that drivers generally drive more slowly and much less aggressively because the feedback system acts as a fuel-economy tutor.” And, most drivers have a rough ability to turn this “mpg” feedback into fiscal implications (how many dollars can be saved with different driving patterns) in a rough, intuitive manner.  

Let us take, as a given, that these sorts of dashboard feedback systems have – on average – an impact on driving patterns for those who have them staring them in the face.  That ‘real-time’ feedback matters for the energy usage. And, that these effects can start rather fast for those exposed to them. Where else could we see similar impacts on energy usage patterns and cut energy use by individuals but on a large scale?  What are the options for providing real-time feedback on home energy use and how might that impact energy use patterns?

Various ways for factoring in price already exist in the commercial market — some easier to deal with than others.  For example, I recently upgraded my home with a fossil fuel heating system (both a (very) high efficiency heat pump and a high-efficiency gas furnance).  As part of the information fed into my automatic thermostat, I put in cost of gas/electricity — the controller then determines which is the most cost-effective system for heating based on system performance, conditions (mainly outdoor temperature for heat pump vs gas furnance), and the cost of fuel.  This system, however, is not real-time responsive (e.g., not real-time pricing), relies on feeding the data (e.g., is not connected to the web), does not provide highly visible feedback (though– controller can be set up to show cost of heating; this is next step in a learning process), and, as the preceding suggests, is a bit of a pain in the xxx to deal with.  (On the other hand, with upgrading from 1990s systems (along with some serious leak-sealing and additional insulation), my heating/cooling energy use has nose-dived.  Plus, FYI, went to a fossil-fuel system (along with solar hot water) that will be compatible with solar electricity (perhaps solar, perhaps Stirling) that I expect to put in 3-7 years from now — Virginia gives none of the great help that California and other states do for solar systems … The Federal tax credit helps with the solar hot water) rather than my previous gas furnace.  Going back to the car analogy, the type of system that I installed is more likely to be the equivalent of the ‘hybrid’ driver rather than the ‘regular’ car driver — those installing fossil fuel systems seem (far) more likely to be energy aware.

There are available systems for real-time monitoring of electricity use that are not so reliant on the customer already being an ‘energy information junkie’ like me (as opposed to ‘energy junkie’ that we virtually all are …).

There have been many test efforts for smart metering.  I recall seeing one discussion where putting real-time metering with electicity use in $ terms — putting the meters central in the home (such as in the kitchen) led to something like a 50% reduction in electricity use in homes in the short term (couple months) with a leveling of something like 30% reduction six months into the experiment.

For almost 20 years now, (at least one) company has offered this type of option.  Woodstock Hydro offered it as a path toward reducing bad debt by creating a prepayment program for electricity use and they put a meter in the home that did a count-down against the prepayment.  An electricity debit card, if you will.    

“A new meter with a remote display offered real-time feedback in a form comprehensible to all and in a convenient location where the customer could easily check the information as to how quickly the card was being depleted.”


As discussed in a very good Oil Drum analysis (more below), Woodstock Hydro loves this because there is “no opportunity to accumulate bad debts, and therefore no need for customers to be disconnected and then reconnected – for a substantial fee – as is common practice under other utilities.”

But this had an unintended, positive result for the community (even if not the utility):

“The utility soon noticed that consumption had fallen for those on the program by an average of 15%. This had not been anticipated as no conservation information had been provided. Indeed initially, the utility thought the reduction must be some sort of technical problem and attempted to solve it. Eventually they realized that the effect must be real and began to study it. The program was opened up to the whole customer base and has become so popular that there is a waiting list to be part of it. Customers typically save more per month from reduced consumption (15-20%) than they pay (as a small daily supplement to actual consumption) to be part of the program. Approximately a quarter of the customer base now participates in the pre-payment initiative.”

And, these systems are heading toward the ‘big-time’.  Several years ago, Ottawa committed to put smart electricity meters into all homes and businesses — to reduce peak demand, primarily, but also overall all electricity use.

Oil Drum, there were/are several quite interesting discussion/analysis of Ottawa’s plans to place smart electricity meters in all homes:

“In 2004, the Ontario government committed themselves to installing smart electricity meters in 800,000 Ontario homes by 2007 and in all homes and businesses by 2010 … The intention of the smart metering policy is to use time-of-day pricing to reduce peak demand by encouraging load shifting, as meeting peak demand during peak season frequently involves reliance on expensive electricity imports. Reducing peak demand could remove the need for new peaking plant and its associated transmission capacity, as well as dampening price volatility in the energy markets. It remains to be seen, however, how much load-shifting can be achieved under the policy as currently conceived.”

This discussion examines the cost/benefit equation for the Ottawa program re smart meters and, in essence, finds that the equation is imbalanced — that the costs (fiscal) are unlikely to be worth the fiscal benefits for most consumers.  The analysis raises serious questions as to whether the costs (currently $Canadian 400 for a meter, potentially to go down to $100 with $3-4/month of costs) will match the fiscal savings that individual consumers might see.

Same author on Oil Drum offered up a Better Alternative   To the prompting of this discussion, the author comments about the implications for Woodstock Hydro customers with smart meters:  

The effect is comparable to the feedback screen in a hybrid car, which shows the driver vividly how his driving habits affect his fuel consumption. The result in the case of hybrids is that drivers generally drive more slowly and much less aggressively because the feedback system acts as a fuel-economy tutor.

In the case of electricity, active consumers turn off lights in unoccupied rooms, alter thermostats in a seasonally appropriate way, dry clothing outside on a clothesline and take other measures to reduce consumption. One might imagine that utility customers would have resented having to take these measures, but in fact Woodstock Hydro noticed that participants in the program complained much less frequently than did other customers. They had begun to treat buying electricity in the same way that they bought food or fuel for their vehicle – as their own responsibility. When their card balance was depleted, they put electricity on the shopping list.  

The analysis, re Ottawa, points out that Woodstock Hydro’s system is slightly less capable but much less expensive — that the cost/benefit equation is much better for the ‘average’ consumer that the the expected societal benefits (in terms of power reduction) are not out-of-line with what the more expensive approach might be expected to deliver.  As discussed:  “As the Woodstock meters are considerably less expensive than the proposed smart meters, partially due the lack of two-way communication capability, integrating TOU pricing into this existing platform would seem to be a far more cost-effective means of introducing smart-metering.”  (The “Powerstat” (the meter) is currently charged at $7.95/month according to Woodstock Hydro — there does not seem to be a capital expense for purchase of the Powerstat offered by Woodstock.)  As an interesting element, the Woodstock Hydro program eliminates the need for monthly bills.

The paragraphs above do not do the Oil Drum analysis justice — plus there was extensive commentary on both of these posts.

Smart meters are far from just an Ontario development.  For example, Italy is installing 30 million smart meters and the UK seems not far behind.  The claims for what is desired do not seem to extreme, “‘smart meters’ could help cut energy use by 3 to 15%”.  [Note, however, the word “energy use” rather than electricity — is really a 15% cut in all energy use, doubt it.]  

For an interesting ‘review of the literature analysis’, see The Effectiveness of Feedback on Energy Consumption (warning: pdf) from April 2006.  

Most domestic energy use, most of the time, is invisible to the user … This review considers what is known about the effectiveness of feedback to householders.  The focus I son how people change their behaviour … The norm is for savings from direct feedback (immediate, from the meter …) to range from 5-15%.  The role of the meter is to provide a clearly-understood point of reference for improved billing and for display. …

“There is some indication that high energy users may respond more than low users to direct feedback. … Indirect feedback (… Processed in some way before reaching the energy user, normally via billing) is usually more suitable than direct feedback for demonstrating any effect on consumption of changes in space heating [and other large-scale investments]. Savings have ranged from 0-10%, but they vary according to context and quality of informaiton given.  Historic feedback appears to be more effective than comparative or normative (comparing with other households or with a target figure.

I am absolutely NOT a believer in silver-bullet solutions.  Instead, I believe that we should be pursuing a portfolio of approaches for power sources, energy efficiency, and usage patterns.  The last is often the hardest to deal with in terms of large-scale policy and interacting with individuals.  We encountered the often mocked “Jimmy Carter wearing sweaters” image.

What is appealing about real-time feedback systems (whether in cars, businesses, or homes) that show power in cost terms is that they address the last (usage patterns) and encourage the second (energy efficiency) in terms that work within basic American society — dollars and cents, COST! These systems, as per Energize America’s core philosophy, help Make the right choice the easy choice when it comes to energy use especially where individuals have the chance to ‘control their own destiny’.

Behavioral change results from this metering (5-15% electricity use reduction).  The dollars/cents staring one in the face, in real time, evidently provides real motivational factor. How many coal-powered power plants could be shut-down for a 10% reduction in electricity use?

And, from “Effectiveness of Feedback”, there is the reinforcing discussion of how using the power bill could become a reinforcing/leveraging mechanism for greater change in power consumption.  

Thinking about the above makes me wonder whether:

  • A smart metering and smart billing program cut electrical demand by 20% in households?  
  • Smart Metering/Smart Billing could have a very quick impact on electricity demand

To get there, we need more governments to follow Ontario’s and Italy’s lead — but to do so in a cost-effective manner such that the vast majority of customers will welcome the change as a path toward saving money (and, let the likely minority who truly care celebrate the impact on reducing GHG emissions).  

I am a self-described pessimistic optimist (or optimistic pessimist). Contemplating the above gives me hope about the possible even if wondering whether such feedback approaches will be implemented.  But, in terms of optimism, I wonder whether these steps combined with aggressive energy efficiency programs (reducing vampire loads, more stringent standards, improved building codes), utility efficiency (improved transformers, better power lines), and drives for more renewable power (wind, solar (both PV and Stirling), geothermal (low-temperature), ocean, etc) could create a situation where the United States (and other nations) could eliminate coal-fired plants from the electrical grid within the next 15 years …


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