Can Smart Energy Be Smart Enough?

You can design all the smart energy technologies you want. But they’re still being used by humans, and that means the outcome is not guaranteed.

Smart energy technology isn’t enough. People have to want to use it experts told a Washington conference. (Photo By: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Smart energy technology isn’t enough. People have to want to use it experts told a Washington conference. (Photo By: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Case in point: the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems performed a winter-long study of 90 Northeast households. It equipped half with high-end programmable thermostats and half with the budget model you'd buy at the big-box retailer.

The result: Almost no difference in energy savings. Users wanted 72-degree indoor temperatures, regardless of the technology.

"It had a limited impact overall in terms of what it could do," said Kurt Roth, director of building energy technologies for the Boston-based firm. "It wasn't sufficient to affect energy consumption."

That shows that utilities need to account for human behavior because it can be at least as important as the actual technology, panelists told a June 26 forum at the 2017 Energy Information Administration conference in Washington.  

"This is not a plea to do away with all the work we do on the technology side. It is an argument that both technology and behaviors are important," said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, associate director at the consultant Navigant and an expert on the human dimensions of energy efficiency.

Ehrhardt-Martinez noted that residential buildings account for about 22 percent of domestic energy consumption. With a focus on changing behaviors, residential buildings could achieve savings of up to 2.5 percent of all U.S. consumption, she estimated.

"We know that human behavior plays a very big role in shaping energy consumption above and beyond the technologies that are in place," she said.

Those findings hold several meaning for utilities. First, a follow-up on energy audits or energy-efficiency programs is essential to make sure consumers are actually reducing consumption levels.

"There's ability versus motivation. Ability is enhanced [by technology], but does not affect motivation," Roth said.

Utilities that offer smart energy products might take a look at ones that provide feedback to users, such as the leaf that appears on the Nest thermostat as a sign of energy savings, he added.

Those devices are more interactive, he said, and have a better chance of changing behavior patterns.


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