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Social proof and residential energy monitoring

October 27, 2009

A short article in The Atlantic got my attention today.  I have been thinking about the projected allocation of spending on the Smart Grid over then next decade.  It turns out that the main costs will be for upgrading the electricity distribution grid to deal with a number of issues with the current infrastructure:

  • Evolved slowly, as needed, over the last 4-5 decades
  • Built to provide power from central generation facilities, not solar panels in New Jersey and the Southwest, or wind farms in North Dakota.
  • Not built to re-direct the flow of energy effectively over large areas.
  • No electrical energy storage
  • Nor was it built to support an efficient market of energy trading (not the infrastructure nor the organizations)
  • Not taking advantage of information technology for grid management

Although you wouldn’t know immediately based on the hype, only a small fraction (much less than 20%, the entire AMI and DR budget) of the spending will go to home energy monitoring and control [ref]. This spending makes sense based on the ratio of available savings from home energy monitoring/cost to deploy monitoring and control.

Robert Cialdini is implementing an interesting alternative to automated demand response in the home: publish comparative data on energy use to motivate changes in behavior.

Now Cialdini is applying that concept to energy consumption, with promising results. Positive Energy, a company that has drawn on his work (he’s the chief scientist), has created software that assesses energy usage by neighborhood. Results are sent to consumers on behalf of their local utility, praising you with a row of smiley faces (you’ve used 58 percent less electricity than your neighbors this month!) or damning you with none (you used 39 percent more electricity than your neighbors in the past 12 months, and it cost you $741 extra).

– From Greening With Envy, The Atlantic

The article goes on to explain the ideas behind “social proof” and tout the successes of the project.  This approach makes a lot of sense because:

  1. Passive monitoring is boring.  No one but the most devoted energy geek is going to sit and watch their energy use numbers roll by in order to respond to “energy events” after the first few weeks.
  2. Significant levels of automated demand response are irritating.  “My washing machine stopped mid cycle because the energy company ran out of capacity?”
  3. Monitoring and control is difficult to justify when the payback period on installation and monitoring systems from electricity bill savings is 5-10 years.

The aggregation and simple publishing idea from Cialdini seems practical–compatible with human psychology and cost effective.

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