Consumer Education: A Big Challenge for Smart Grid

There is much discussion about the “smart grid,” but perhaps more time is necessary to learn how to apply new technologies and services in a way that consumers understand.

When I was a municipal energy manager in the early 1980s, the mantra was “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” so we methodically assessed every city account with the local gas and electric utilities.  We tracked each office building, pumping station, street light, recreational facility, airport terminal, police and fire station, garage and storage building each month.  The city – by which I mean department managers, the City Manager, the Budget Manager, and I – needed to know where the city dollars were going before we could decide what to do about it. We took many steps to improve efficiency, and usage dropped while prices escalated, thus keeping the city budget on target.

It’s the same with individuals and households. We receive monthly energy bills, but we do not know how much each appliance consumes or what it costs to operate.  We do not know how frequently our appliances operate. (When is the water heater reheating?) We don’t measure each appliance or understand its usage, and that makes management a challenge.  Energy program managers have known for years that the typically consumer does not understand energy usage, does not know what actions to take to conserve, and does not know how much to spend to purchase a more efficient appliance.

Researchers at Columbia University have now confirmed what EE specialists have known all along: that people have basic information about total usage, but they are hazy on the details.  That is not to say they do not guess.  Perceptions matter and people underestimate the usage and the energy savings potential of large appliances and devices. People tend to manage things that have a very small impact on their usage. They change one light bulb to a more efficient one, or they turn off a light as they leave a room. That’s fine, but while they may think they are doing great things to conserve, they may not see the savings in the next energy bill.  And because they are doing the inconsequential things, and they are leaving a lot of money on the table!

Consumer behavior is fickle.  My partner, Jamie Wimberly, has written here that one action to conserve may be accompanied by another action to increase usage. (Read all the EcoAlign blogs from our home page.)

Shahzeen Attari of Columbia noted that people adopt a familiar mental yardstick for estimating savings, and “anchor” other estimates around those things.  People understand small things like light bulbs, but do not understand the usage and savings of electric water heaters and air conditioners. In other words, people think in units of a “100-watt light bulb,” which does not come close to a 4000 watt electric water heater or the central air conditioner which (depending on its size and efficiency) may use much more power than the water heater.  Here is the article abstract:

In a national online survey, 505 participants reported their perceptions of energy consumption and savings for a variety of household, transportation, and recycling activities. When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations. For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.8 on average, with small overestimates for low-energy activities and large underestimates for high-energy activities. Additional estimation and ranking tasks also yielded relatively flat functions for perceived energy use and savings. Across several tasks, participants with higher numeracy scores and stronger pro-environmental attitudes had more accurate perceptions. The serious deficiencies highlighted by these results suggest that well-designed efforts to improve the public’s understanding of energy use and savings could pay large dividends. “Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The Economist, in the article “Watts Up?” August 21, 2010, p. 66, displays the relationship (drawing from the PNAS article), for various appliances and various savings measures, between actual power consumption and perceived power consumption.  “Correct” perceptions would fall on the dashed line.

As new technologies track the details of our usage, we will all get better informed. (Note: A smart grid should give us information about the particular usage of our appliances, which may differ from the usage of our neughbors, or from the averages presented by researchers.)  But do not expect consumer education and behavior to change immediately. We have a long road ahead of us as we learn where our energy dollars are going and what to do about it.

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