Who Should Be Talking About Energy Conservation (It’s Not the Consumer)?

  • Posted by Brian Fino

Utilities have two problems when it comes to providing for their customers: First, people tend to use a lot of energy at the same time; second, they have no plans or incentives for changing this.

This means an inefficient system which results in big spikes in energy use—and big liabilities to match. When everyone switches on their A/C at full blast at 5 p.m., utilities need to supply it, period, even if it means purchasing more energy, at a greater cost to the consumers.

The most efficient electrical system, of course, would have constant load, with constant demand, and predictable operational costs and returns. But how might that happen?

Until now, utilities have not found a practical, non-intrusive, easy, or compelling method for getting consumers to shift or reduce their consumption during peak hours. Such a change requires far too much effort, knowledge, and forethought. It’s the rare sustainability-minded person who finds ways to reduce use simply because it’s “the right thing” to do. And they hardly represent the bulk of users.

You don’t have to turn everyone into do-gooders, environmental advocates, or girl scouts in search of sustainability badges to make a dent in energy use. And any attempts to do this will fall short of measures that make a difference.

So what’s the solution?

It isn’t a pamphlet or a list of tips for reducing energy use. It isn’t designing smarter machines yourself, since that’s not what you do. The answer lies in forging a powerful partnership between the utility and the manufacturer. Together, you can develop more intuitive user experiences that make it easy—mindless, even—to ease demand and incentivize optimal energy use.

Think of the success of the Energy Star program, designed by the Environmental Protection Agency to help businesses and consumers optimize energy use—and completely volunteer, by the way. Their success stories show just how big an impact it has had:

  • Employees of the US Dept. of Energy built a broad coalition of support for computer power management that ultimately saved US taxpayers $16 million.
  • United States Air Force will save $15 million through power management and specifying Energy Star computers.
  • FedEx will reduce energy costs by approximately $1 million annually by activating sleep features on 20,000 PCs.

(Read more about Energy Star successes.)

The partnership between utility and manufacturer is an idea whose time has come—and it doesn’t have to forged by or underwritten by a government agency. Fact is, working with manufacturers to make smarter appliances that helps spread out the demand and reduce risks and liability benefits everybody, and saves costs all around. Not to mention make a smarter, more appealing product that understands and adapts to existing habits, rather than attempt to change them.

The appliance is the customer’s interface with energy, period. Take your smartphone for instance—you only obsess over power when you’re running very low. The rest of the time, your experience of that power is through whatever apps you’re using, which are smart and intuitive, by design (or else they go unused). The tool must work well and use only enough energy to get the job done. And since most people take for granted that energy will continue to flow at full strength, uninterrupted, through their wires and pipes, their experience of energy is governed by the app itself. That’s the direction household appliances need to go.

Bottom line: Your customer’s experience of energy is and will continue to be dictated by the manufacturer. The sooner you communicate ways manufacturers can make better use of your utility, the more likely they are to design them that way.

What does this look like? It could be a washing machine that gives you the option of choosing “Morning,” “Afternoon,” or “Evening” (instead of just “Now”) to level the spike. Imagine a more energy optimized DVR, microwave, hair dryer, phone charger.

Telling consumers to simply “reduce energy consumption” has been the clarion call of utilites for 20+ years. It’s time to get smarter about it. Because in order to get past good intentions and spotty efforts at putting energy conservation into action, utilities have to team up with manufacturers to create intuitive experiences that make it so easy, so effortless, that optimal energy use will be the new default, rather than something you go out of your way to do.

Imagine that.

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