07 May 2012

Peer pressure helps cut households energy use

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Giving energy consumer feedback on similar users’ consumption helps them gain sustained control over their own energy use. This novel energy management approach combines intelligent monitoring of energy use with personalised advice and information sharing within user groups.

It was developed under the €2.88 million EU funded Digital Environment Home Energy Management System (DEHEMS) project.

A number of plug-in home energy monitoring meters are already available on the market. However, their impact on improving energy efficiency tends to be short-term.  Often initial enthusiasm is followed by a gradual decline in usage. In contrast, when DEHEMS was tested in the UK and Bulgaria, it enabled users to reduce home energy consumption by an average of 8% on a sustained basis.

To achieve these savings, scientists developed a device that works by monitoring the amount of energy consumed as well as additional data ranging from household heat loss to appliance performance. Unlike previously available devices, it provides users with readily intelligible, real-time information via the DEHEMS ‘dashboard’. “It showed them how their energy consumption patterns compared with those in similar households in terms of size and age structure, and it offered personalised tips on saving energy, tailored to each household,” says Kuo-Ming Chao, a project participant and a Professor of computer and network systems at Coventry University, UK.

To evaluate the technology all DEHEMS users were organised in ‘Living Labs’. Joshua Cooper, CEO of London, UK-based Hildebrand, another project participant, believes that this was critical to the enduring results achieved. “There is evidence that behaviour change is often best achieved out in a group or community context,” he explains. “Participants in the Living Labs shared hints and tips about reducing energy consumption, and, in some cases, people became quite competitive about who could save the most.” In fact, the highest sustained average savings were achieved in groups where the users shared a common interest, such as being teachers working in the same school.

Cooper acknowledges that, in an ideal world, household appliances would be designed to be inherently ‘energy smart’. For example, washing machines would, by default, operate only at times of off-peak demand or when electricity generated from a renewable source was flooding the grid. “Stripping out as much reliance as possible on users knowing or remembering to do the right thing is ultimately the way forward,” he says. “But until we get to that point, systems like DEHEMS can make a valuable contribution.” Hildebrand is now deploying DEHEMS at large scale with Smart Grids Australia and in a district heating initiative in London, UK.

Russell Layberry, a senior researcher in energy modelling at UK-based Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, agrees: “DEHEMS does what it does well, within the scope it has defined for itself: electricity management and feedback in houses.” But data analysis combined with feedback has potential applications in other areas. For example, he adds, one such application consists of “investigating the possible uses of real-time pricing for absorbing large surges of electricity from intermittent renewables sources like wind and sun.”

UK-based Manchester City Council, the project coordinator, and Hildebrand are now working together on a new European funded project. This involves adapting cloud-based database technology created during DEHEMS to help cities across Europe achieve their carbon reduction targets under the umbrella of the Intelligent Cities initiative.

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