Households need the right tools to be able to take control of their real-time energy consumption, says Maximilian Auffhammer at the Energy Institute at Haas. Smart meters are just too crude. They don’t tell you how much energy individual devices are using – fridges, ovens, heaters, EV chargers, TVs, lightbulbs, toasters, etc. You have to work it out yourself by switching devices on and off and seeing the difference. Auffhammer argues if you price energy right and give people the information and ability to control their usage, they will do the right thing. The auto industry can teach us a lesson. Most cars now have an “eco mode” button that prioritises fuel efficiency. Every home should have one, says Auffhammer. And installation should be free because the energy savings will pay for them – a no-brainer for policy-makers. Going further, utilities should be able to control major devices (fridges, heating and cooling, EV charging, laundry) during times of energy scarcity; customers will get a warning and can limit or override this option if they need to.
We need better and simpler information technology for better decisions
It’s the time of the year when I start yelling at the family to not set the thermostat to 67 degrees (Fahrenheit) because electricity costs a lot of money and we don’t have a money tree. It immediately follows the season when I tell my family not to set the thermostat to 72 degrees, because natural gas costs a lot of money and even if we had a money tree, it would probably not bear fruit in the winter.
As we have pointed out many times on this blog, the energy you pay for is not something you experience directly, but you experience the services it provides. And most of us have absolutely no, nada, keine idea how much energy a fridge versus a lightbulb, toaster oven, water heater, EV charger, wine fridge, iphone charger, big screen TV uses or how much it costs to operate for a certain amount of time.
Right price, right information = right outcome
Ten years (gulp!) ago, I talked about the fabulous paper by Jessoe and Rapson, that pointed out that if you price energy right and give people information about how much they use, they do the right thing! And the impacts are persistent and large! I had high hopes that years in the future, everyone would have easy access to a cheap (or even free) display in their home that shows you how much energy your house uses. But the state of affairs is infuriating. I am going to briefly talk about my own experience, which is of course different from that of other folks.
Smart Meters don’t give detail
My utility (PG&E) installed a smart meter outside my house over ten years ago. There are two ways of getting real time information. Send my teenager out to the meter and have him read it and yell back to me what happens when I turn stuff on or off. That deeply upsets my kid and I can’t do that all the time, since he will ask to no longer do the dishes or take the trash out.
The second way is to “empower yourself” with a program called stream my data. You have to go through forms, prove that you are worthy, invest $100 bucks in a small box that you have to hook up to your router and then go through a complex app setup to read your data. It works. I did it. Then after 5 years I learned that the white box I had was no longer working and I was invited to buy a new model. When this thingy works, my real time data can be looked at in an app on my phone, which requires glasses, which I can’t ever seem to find. Other than that you are out of luck. (Yes there are some apps, but none of them work without jumping through serious hoops).
Information about natural gas consumption is even worse! I would have to send my kid to the backyard with a stopwatch to figure out how much gas is flowing through our pipes to run our furnace and water heater (Yes. We do not have a heat pump yet. Spare me the comments.)
And all of this is happening to a nerd, who is not afraid of coding things, installing things and is pretty handy all around! I am going out on a limb here to say that the typical consumer will not go through this effort and will continue to make largely uninformed decisions based on their consumption from two months ago appearing in the bill when the autopay hits their account. This is not as bad as my dad’s home in Germany, which gets a single energy bill each year (I am not kidding), but not much better.
Cars have “eco-mode”
So here is what I am thinking. When the car was invented, it did not even have a speedometer. You drove by felt speed. That is both an issue for safety and energy consumption of course, as energy consumption for vehicles increases non-linearly in speed. So today, all cars have a speedometer, which helps us make better decisions. But let’s link that up with energy consumption. The US total energy consumption per capita for the residential sector is 61.9 million BTU. For transportation (trucks and cars) it is 73.5 million BTU. Each car and truck we build or import now has real time energy speed and consumption feedback and most cars have an “eco(n) mode”, where the car prioritises fuel economy (e.g. shutting down cylinders or not unleashing as much power when you step on the gas pedal), which is good for the environment and the pocket book.
If you are an eager consumer you can get yesterday’s total consumption for your home or jump through Auffhammerian hoops to get real time feedback for electricity. But the next step is still missing. The “eco mode” button on my house today is not that different from the one my dad used in the 1960. It’s essentially programming my thermostat. Yes there are some startups that do smart things here, but all of them require learning and signing things, which frankly most folks won’t do.
…so can our homes!
So here is what I want.
- I want everyone to have a display in their house with real-time electricity and natural gas consumption. They should not have to go out and buy it, as it’s probably going to save more energy than the cost of the gadget (especially if a government agency or utility buys 10 million).
- I want the main electricity consuming gadgets in my house to be controlled in a fashion that if I want to hit eco mode, the whole house sets itself up in energy saving mode. One button. Like in a car.
- I want the utility to be able to control major electricity uses in my house during times of energy scarcity and downcycle my fridge, turn the AC up a few degrees, defer my car charging and delay my laundry machine. I want to get a notification when the utility is going to do this.
- I want to be able to control or override all of this on my phone (for example, say no – thank you. I have a bunch of people coming over.).
I have friends, I am not going to name them (David Anthoff), who are so nerdy that they are spending time hacking their homes to do just this, with bizarre sensors and code that lives on github. He will probably tell me to stop whining and just do what he does. But I should not have to. If we are going off into an electrify everything future, these information-based technologies need to be simple and everywhere.
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the Energy Institute at Haas, part of the University of California, Berkeley.
This article is published with permission
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