West Coast Green 2009: Can Energy Dashboards Change Behavior, Permanently?

our home spaces dashboard photo

Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch
Energy dashboards were a big subject at West Coast Green this year. But the buzz wasn't as much around new devices on the market as it was pondering how energy dashboards - and the simple fact of making energy consumption data available to consumers - can change our habits for the better, for good. Not just a novelty anymore but something making their way into our daily life, energy monitoring dashboards have a big role to fill, but still have room for improvement. From panels with key players like Google PowerMeter, PG&E; and IBM to un-panels made up of smart meter enthusiasts, there were some big ideas about how energy dashboards will revise the way we interact with our homes and energy sources. Energy Dashboards Are The Next Major Tool for Energy Efficiency
In a panel on connecting smart buildings to the smart grid, the main focus was on how the end user of electricity can participate in energy efficiency. Andrew Tang, Senior Director, Smart Energy Web at Pacific Gas & Electric stated that we're a short 12 to 24 months away from power meters being a commonplace item on shore shelves that people pick up regularly to install in their homes and monitor their energy consumption.

It is becoming part of the American mindset, but as that mindset becomes more sophisticated, detailed energy dashboards need to take the place of simple power monitors. Seconding this, Google PowerMeter's Michael Terrell said that the number one thing that green builders can do to make their buildings more energy efficient is give the building inhabitants access to their energy consumption data, since studies have shown that just knowing what one's energy consumption is can reduce that consumption by around 15%.

Making Energy Dashboard Information Accessible
The trouble, though, is how to present that information to consumers. As brought up by Janet Peterson of Our Home Spaces in another panel on energy dashboards, we have to know where people's eyes are looking in order to know how to get their information to them. While Google's PowerMeter is online, Peterson noted that the computer isn't the only way people gather their information, or even necessarily the prefered way. That's why energy dashboard data needs to be consumable via mobile phone, computer, television... anywhere people might be most comfortable getting their data.

So what are the important issues behind energy dashboards that will get them to be widely accepted, widely used, and widely changing our behavior? Participants in an energy dashboard un-panel started asking questions:

energy dashboard unpanel photo

The questions that came up in every panel included privacy of information when it comes to sharing one's utility information, accurate comparisons among peers when utilities calculate how one ranks among people in their neighborhood, city, and state; strategies for keeping people interested in monitoring and reducing their energy consumption; making the information easy to access and easy to understand; putting the information in context such as how one's savings equates to a number of cars coming off the road; and how energy dashboards can expand to not only electricity but also gas and water use.

What Difference Can Energy Dashboards Make?
As Tang noted, many of our power plants are built only to help contribute the electricity needed during peak hours, which is from 4pm to 7pm. That means that 5% of the power plants we've built are only being used 50 hours a year, and 25% are only being used 10% of the year. If we can have a paradigm shift and focus not on enough power plants to handle peak hours, but instead change consumer behavior so that demand is reduced, we can make a huge difference in the number of power plants being built and in our ability to utilize renewable energy sources.

While much of this is a matter of getting the smart grid set up, and getting smart meters to every household, it is also a matter of getting energy dashboards to people that are user-friendly and effective.

Creating something that is customizable for how simplistic or complicated a user wants their information to be, making it interactive so a user can see how they're ranking among similar households, spark a competitive spirit in people so that everyone is trying to save more than their peers, and making the information effortless to access through any format are some of the key ways energy dashboards can be designed to alter our behaviors and make us energy efficient for good. Many companies are on their way to creating this - PeoplePower, Econetix, and Our Home Spaces were three at West Coast Green this year, and Agilewaves was an impressive dashboard at last year's show - but getting them to people is still moving at a pace slowed by venture capital funding and adoption by utilities.

More on Energy Dashboards
Intelligent Dashboards: The Next Big Thing for Smart Sustainability
The Power Monitor: Top Tools for Watching Your Home Energy Use
Microsoft Ready for You to Give Hohm a Test Spin
More on West Coast Green
West Coast Green 2009: Gearing Up for the Latest in Green Design
West Coast Green 2009: Free Design Clinic Makes Quality Design Accessible
West Coast Green 2009: PlanetUp is a Carbon-Offsetting Digg, But Will It Work?
West Coast Green 2009: Instant Housing for Disaster Relief Fits In A Shipping Container (Video)

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