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Power meters help homeowners track and cut their energy use

Buildings gobble up 40 percent of America's energy. A new tool allows people watch their power diets.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2008

Energy orb: Oberlin College professor John Petersen (left) and students Alex Totoiu and Adam Hull play with a meter that tracks power usage. Green is good. Red means cut back.

Kevin Reeves


Out on the high frontier of energy efficiency, John Petersen sees a future where every home has a “building dashboard” and an “energy orb” to help Americans shift from electricity-gulping ignorance to power-sipping sophistication.

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Many aim to reduce global warming by using low-carbon renewable energy sources. But Dr. Petersen, a professor of environmental science at Oberlin College in Ohio, also targets energy waste in buildings. They gobble about 40 percent of the nation’s energy, much of it electricity generated by burning fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

But America’s high-voltage diet could be chopped if people thought more about their energy use, he says. Like the miles-per-gallon readout in some hybrid cars, gauges could be put in homes so residents can know whether their energy use is  pedal-to-the-metal or proceeding at a reasonable clip. “You’ve got dashboards in your car, but until recently nobody had really created one for buildings,” he says. “It’s all about citizens being better informed about energy use – understanding the context of one’s actions.”

Petersen says the orb and the dashboard he helped invent cater to four E’s – “engage, entertain, educate, and empower.” Numerous studies show that given the opportunity to save money by curbing energy use – and given the technology to take action to reduce it – consumers will take action.

Modeled after a device that notifies investors how their stocks are doing, Petersen’s energy orb reminds people to check in on the building dashboard. At their computer terminal, a resident can view the dashboard to find out how much money, or tons of carbon dioxide has been saved.

An energy orb now hangs in the lobbies of six Oberlin dorms, glowing fiery red to remind students when energy use in a dorm is soaring or cool green when consumption falls. During a recent competition, Oberlin students, who don’t even pay electric bills directly, whacked 56 percent off their power consumption by becoming hyperaware of how much they were using.

“I had an [energy] orb in my dorm last year, and it really did affect the way I thought about my energy use,” writes Pichaya Winichakul, an Oberlin sophomore in an e-mail interview. “Having it there was a constant reminder when I left for class or meals that I can always do more to reduce. I even rearranged part of my room so that I only needed to use one outlet that could be switched on and off to save energy.”

So how much energy and dollars could homeowners who watch their utility bills save? It’s a question the electric industry is asking. Utilities have been busy giving homeowners in some regions their own personal in-home power meters that make it easier to track basic electricity use.