by Stephanie Oehler
As energy demand continues to increase, more utilities are turning to smart grids to manage larger systems and the increasingly diverse array of energy sources. The first technology implemented in a system is typically the smart meter because it allows for greater communication between utilities and consumers. Giving consumers access to usage information allows them to play a role in demand-side energy management. Smart meters have been installed in many systems around the world with the intention of increasing awareness amongst consumers regarding energy use patterns, and empowering them to change their behavior in order to lower their electricity costs, and subsequently reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have revealed that smart meters and other behavior monitoring devices are influential in reducing costs and energy usage immediately after installment, but few studies have examined their impacts over an extended period of time. Hargreaves et al. (2013) set out to examine the changes in consumer behavior that came from the installation of Smart Energy Monitors (SEMs) in home in the United Kingdom (UK) and to see whether the effects stuck a year later. They did this through qualitative interviews of 11 households involved in a Visible Energy Trial which revealed that initial reductions flattened out over time as the SEMs served as a monitor of normal usage rather than a tool to further reduce energy demand. These results are indicative of the challenges that utilities face in maintaining the effectiveness of technologies like SEMs as tools for energy reduction and the need for increased policy and market-driven incentives to encourage energy conservation amongst consumers.
Many SEM trials that have been carried out throughout the UK produced inconclusive results in terms of effectiveness in energy reduction in households. Hargreaves and colleagues conducted multiple surveys of a selection of households that participated in the Visible Energy Trial (VET) in England. The VET involved 275 households that were split into four test groups to observe the impacts of various SEMs between 2008 and 2010: the first group purchased the Solo, a monitor that displayed current and daily energy use and how the household was meeting or surpassing its established daily budget; the second group installed the Duet, which had additional features including boiler usage and independent monitoring of up to six appliances; the third group obtained the Trio, which contained the same features as the previous two monitors and the additional capacity to monitor the energy demand from hot water, heating, electrical circuits, and 100 appliances; the fourth group was a control group that was not able to monitor the information that was gathered through the devices installed in their homes. Quantitative data were collected regarding energy usage and cost reductions for other studies. Hargreaves et al. chose 15 households that participated in the VET, four from each technology group and three from the control group, and conducted qualitative interviews in 2009 and a year later in 2010. The follow-up interviews lasted for under an hour and were performed via telephone for 11 of the 12 test subjects who were actively using the various SEMs.
The authors focused on four areas during the interviews: monitor utilization; changes in energy education or consumption habits due to information displayed by the monitors; changes in monitor function within the household over the 12 month period; and concerns and suggestions for monitor improvements in the future. The results were generally similar across households and test groups. While three subjects had stopped using the SEMs prior to the second round of interviews for various technical and other reasons, the remaining households observed an initial peak in observation of the monitors referred to as the ‘honeymoon period,’ followed by a gradual decline in attentiveness. In general, users were less annoyed by the devices as they began to play more passive roles in the households in the 12 months that had passed, likely due to the repetitiveness of information displayed. Users observed that the monitors played less of a role after the initial learning period as they gained a grasp of their energy use patterns, and this sometimes resulted in the movement of the monitors and a transformation in how they were used in the households. Some participants mentioned that they found different information from the monitors to be valuable over time, focusing more on specifics than total consumption. They also established the idea of a normal use level that they would try to maintain rather than continuing to reduce energy demand. Many households felt that their energy awareness and practices had changed due to the presence of the SEMs. By visually presenting data, the monitors provided an easily interpretable depiction of the effects of various behaviors on energy demand. Consumers focused on their initial ability to identify areas for significant reductions, but over time this disappeared as they settled into their normal use levels at which point they would be compromising convenience and well-being in order to conserve energy. The authors found that most interviewees were not particularly driven to reduce energy consumption by environmental incentives. Trial participants were also observed to face many of the same challenges that they foresaw in the first round of interviews. Amongst these limitations were difficulty in modifying routines and social dynamics within households. Hargreaves et al. identifies three main obstacles that grew over the 12 months between interviews; household disagreements, inflexible demand, and political and market limitations.
The authors concluded that SEMs led to initial changes in household energy consumption in the short-term but reinforced the concept of a normal level of demand in the long-run. Interviewees indicated that the monitors allowed them to observe the level of consumption that was typical for them and worked to maintain that level rather than continuing to identify areas for conservation. In addition to complex household relationships, Hargreaves et al. identify the role of public policy and market conditions in reinforcing these norms, particularly focusing on three issues. First, there was a clear and unpredictable difference in how each household used the monitors which should be addressed in future demand-side management approaches with smart grid technologies. Second, the authors noticed that users were not likely to reduce their consumption without external incentives and support. Lastly, SEMs did not prompt householders to question their concepts of normal use which will provide a challenge in energy conservation efforts as societal energy demands continue to increase. The authors suggested that policies be used to limit energy use of individuals in order to challenge the concept of normal use and further change energy consumption patterns such that SEMs would be imperative to assist users in complying with energy limits.
Hargreaves, T., Nye M., Burgess J., 2013. Keeping energy visible? Exploring how householders interact with feedback from smart energy monitors in the longer term. Energy Policy 52, 126–134. Abstract at: http://bit.ly/1tKnp6K