Kevin Reeves
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.
John Kehe/Staff

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.

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.

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.

But in the past two years, a dozen pilot studies have involved more intense efforts providing “real-time pricing” (an hour-by-hour rate with higher prices for peak times) along with “smart meters” deployed in several thousand residences. Instead of a flat rate on a monthly bill, utilities told residents in advance when rates would rise the next day and gave them technology to monitor consumption as well as programmable thermostats and other energy-saving gear. Overall, the studies saw peak demand drop 27 to 44 percent, according to a Brattle Group report last month.

That’s great news for utilities trying to level power demand and curb the need for new power plants. But it’s also a harbinger. Within those “smart-grid” pilot studies, a gaggle of technology companies have been working on dashboard-like energy-information devices, says Ahmad Faruqui, the energy expert who analyzed the studies for the Brattle Group, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.

“We are definitely seeing a shift toward smart meters and real-time pricing,” Mr. Faruqui says. “Without a doubt, [building dashboards] are where the future is.... Right now homes have a meter outside that’s the same variety as the one that was on [turn-of-the-century inventor Thomas] Edison’s house. In a few years, though, new homes will be equipped with them as a design feature.”

In an “optimistic scenario,” such meters could lead to a 10 percent reduction in peak demand in US homes over the next 10 to 15 years, reducing the need to build some 30 new power plants, Faruqui says.

The smart-metering of America has begun. In California, all homes will have smart meters by 2012. A pilot test in Illinois has begun informing more than 6,000 residential customers of the real-time hourly prices they will pay the next day. This allows them to set their appliances or home heating to avoid peak-pricing times.

Lucid Design Group, in Oakland, Calif., developed the “building dashboard” in use at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and a number of other campuses. It’s focusing on school and government buildings because the dashboard technology, which requires installing many sensors, is too costly for widespread installation in individual houses. Single homes remains the goal, however.

“What we’re doing is the next level, not individual users but communities of users, comparing energy across different homes, buildings, and groups of buildings,” says Michael Murray, president of Lucid.

One application he expects the company to deploy soon will involve a Facebook application that lets you compare your energy use automatically with other Facebook users.

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