In the United States, sustainable progress most often takes the form of ways to engineer a more efficient version of the status quo. Products that allow for a reduction in net resource use while allowing customers to live the same way are seen as a win/win. To be fair, the small advances we can take through greener product choices are a first step and certainly better than nothing, even if course-altering impacts towards a sustainable culture will require the underlying lifestyle to evolve. If greener consumerism is one of the paths that Americans are responding to then the products need to do more than provide a promise for eventual savings. The more that people can connect choices of product usage to resource repercussions in real time, the better the chance that lifestyles can alter to maximize the use of more efficient products.
Goin’ Green? Buy Me!
Whether it is appliances, electronics or light bulbs, the market has no shortage of merchandise that comes with the promise of lowering energy bills. Each generation of technology strives to do more with less energy, but ultimately even the most efficient of gadgets and gizmos revolve around usage patterns. TVs and computers that draw less plug load can see their savings diminished if the perception of efficiency results in them being left on more often. An improved heating and cooling system can end up doing little for the monthly bottom line if the thermostat is pegged for 80 in the winter and 60 in the summer.
At the same time, the system isn’t exactly oriented for success. Most of us are relatively unconnected to the reality of our energy usage on a daily basis. As mesmerizing as it can be to watch the wheel on an electric meter slowly spin round and round, it probably ranks low on the list of hours devoted to American pastime. Our only regular connection to the repercussions of our energy use comes in a little envelope at the end of every month with a dollar figure that represents the entirety of all of our actions over 30 days, giving us the faintest, disjointed, relative idea of how our recent daily patterns might relate to those of the past. The monthly power bill just isn’t enough of a link between cause and effect to promote awareness let alone change.
What people need is more real time data that shows the resource consumption of a home moment to moment with an interface that is easy to understand.
Bring on the Data
I recently heard a representative from Crestron talk about building system products targeting homeowners. One of their new consumer-grade systems is called Pyng, designed to coordinate and automate numerous home systems like lighting, security, shading and thermal comfort into a single interface accessible from a network of smart devices. A series of preset “scenes” can be created for rooms to accommodate usage patterns or in response to daily actions like arriving home or leaving for work.
While the cache of Crestron products could integrate components like daylight dimming or occupancy sensors, the system seemed like more of a tool for comfort than a proactive mechanism for efficiency. When I asked about the capabilities to collect and display data for real time energy usage, I was pointed to building management systems for much larger structures. For big buildings with complex systems, a Building Management System (BMS) is not uncommon. At the level of a single residence Crestron could build these features in, but it would require custom programming to create a system outside the realm of affordability for the average American household.
While the home automation package can be a convenient luxury or a great party trick it is still geared more towards comfort than an efficiency, providing capability without data to inform or instigate decisions. However, an iPad interface for energy usage, broken down by system, room or activity, could inform occupants of how the power load result of every action and even the resulting cost–in real time.
Home, Let’s Talk
Household energy usage would be a place to start, simply taking the same numbers from the electric meter outside and bringing them to the kitchen wall, trading the digital clock font for something easily perceived. Basic environmental data like outside temperature, wind speed and times for sunrise/sunset could be feathered in as well. Below that, usage could be broken down into a series of systems: lighting, heating/cooling, appliances, electronics, electric car and miscellaneous plug loads. Another bar for production could be easily integrated to represent small scale wind or solar PVs. This is also priming households for integrating with a smarter utility grid, allowing utilities to speak to individual systems or appliances to provide power when it is most affordable or harness stored power from parked electric vehicles.
Each stream of power could be paired with the cost of that power as well, removing all confusion as to “where the money goes” at the end of every month. Most important is the synchronized relay of usage so that each switch, knob and power button can cause the numbers on the interface to change. Rather than settings to bring the right mood to a living room, preset modes could be created for the entire house for “high efficiency”, “away from home” or “out of town.”
Bill Browning, founding partner of sustainable consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, points out that the system can only improve with the addition of more inherent benchmarks. “The best systems feed back information that give people some to use as a basis for comparison, for example how am I doing in comparison to my neighbors. Many people still think that a thermostat behaves like an accelerator, the colder I set the faster the room will cool down, not knowing that in a central system the output is the same.” An interface that allows for comparative response could ultimately provide better results. “Building Robotics is doing a system with learning intelligence in which office occupants say either, ‘I’m hot,’ ‘I’m cold’ or ‘I’m comfy.’ This is actually more useful control feed back then saying ‘I want this temperature’.”
Bringing the Systems Home
To be sure, there are companies taking a stab at providing access to these metrics with the compilation of real time overall usage in comparison to historic usage being most common. Google’s Powermeter program took a first step at opening households to a better idea of their power use before the company retired it in 2011. Their webpage highlights that a study by CenterPoint Energy Inc. and the Department of Energy “found that 71% of customers reported changing their energy consumption as a result of accessing energy data through in-home displays.” Ultimately, a common point for not only finer grained data, but the ability to manipulate system usage as well, would make the system more likely to be used and, as a result, influence change.
A new report from Navigant Research forecasts that the global Building Energy Management System market will grow from $2.4 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion in 2020. Once the infrastructure of a home is in place, accessing these power streams for monitoring can be difficult, or even cost prohibitive–resulting in the simpler, over the counter alternatives currently seen on the market. These are components that need to become part of a basic list of components integrated at construction or major renovations. The expectation for higher quality data as well the ways it could be utilized could help change the status quo of residential construction, eventually resulting in a more educated general public.
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