Managing the energy consumption of your housing stock is a challenge that, with legislative changes, will become one of the critical issues of the next decade. The recent Ofgen / DECC consultation is still being reviewed with an announcement expected in early 2011. The expectation is that smart metering technologies will play a major part in future domestic energy solutions with mandated rollout in 2012. This article from Dr John Bradford, managing partner at JBSH, considers three inter-linked technologies and what they mean in practical terms.
To start with, most smart meters are relatively ‘dumb’. They work by monitoring the current flow into a consumer unit or mains circuit-breaker and can report that remotely. That information can be used to change billing rates, limit maximum current flow, or even disconnect remotely. However, there is little perceived benefit for the consumer (or landlord).
It’s not as if we don’t know how to influence emotions to change behaviours. For as long as there have been storytellers, there have been examples of anthropomorphism; the text-book example in recent years was the Tamagotchi. This phenomenon reached such heights in 1997 that there was a crèche in Birmingham and a Buddhist virtual graveyard on the internet.
The point is not how crazy things got in 1997, but that by effectively tapping into people’s basic psychology, you can effect major behavioural changes. I met Carolyn Hassan, the CEO of Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, where she described their Electric Footprint project. They worked with an artist and their local community, supported with funding from Science City Bristol, to develop a prototype website to get people to emotionally engage with their energy consumption.
The result is a simple site that has easy to understand graphics, carefully designed to elicit an emotional response. Knowle West is one of the more deprived wards in Bristol and presenting anything with lots of numbers and graphs simply won’t work. There are analytical views and graphs for those that need them, but the core purpose is to encourage people to emotionally respond to their carbon footprint and want to nurture, protect and see it flourish. This is where another major technological development comes into play.
Since the humble Tamagotchi, we have seen an explosion of online games within social media; any Facebook user will be aware of these games which flourish by encouraging sharing and awarding micro- rewards through badges and updating leader boards to encourage competition. By sharing your ‘footprint’ with neighbours, friends and people in similar houses, one can envisage multiple game scenarios to encourage positive behavioural changes that will give you a better score. Micro- rewards may be absolute (you have kept your consumption below target for a week) or relative (most improved house on your street).
All this is great but you need data for these games to work. Existing meters are really not up to the task, but that is changing rapidly. For example, Enmodus is still in ‘stealth’ mode but its CEO Andy Heaton described to me their new ‘system on a chip’ that will provide real-time current monitoring and reporting in a package that should fit inside a standard 13-amp plug. All of this at a price that will make it cost effective for the typical homeowner. Enmodus is also developing the data systems to handle all this data and make it available, perhaps for a social game like Electric Footprint.
When the advanced micro-electronics from Enmodus touch socially-responsible game approaches such as Electric Footprints, together with increasing public interest in environmental issues, we will have the perfect storm to drive behavioural changes in consumers. This is already happening in health-related products such as Fitbit and Fitbug that blend pedometers with virtual representations of health to encourage regular exercise.
Take simple steps
Of course there are well-known and proven building improvements that can deliver immediate and very real benefits. Roof and cavity wall insulation, good curtains, draft excluders and double glazing all make a material difference to a building’s heat loss, yet too many people still don’t use these simple products. Some of the social aspects from products like the Electric Footprint could be used to demonstrate the efficacy of these simple solutions and encourage their wider adoption.
By participating in a future version of Electric Footprints, you might contribute information or make improvements to your house or flat – perhaps by buying an ‘A-rated’ washing machine instead of a lower-rated one, this might be recorded on the system using Enmodus’s technology and translated into other rewards. Social games techniques can be used to reward certain behavioural patterns and sharing ensures that everyone knows how well they are doing within their community.
These technologies are not five years from market; they are here and being used in the real world (with the exception of Enmodus which is pre-launch). Social gaming aspects can be iteratively developed with community feedback, as seen with Knowle West. Ultimately, it means you have better real-time data on the energy consumption of your housing stock, and the participation of your tenants in reducing load and improving efficiency.
Dr. John Bradford is the managing partner of JBSH.