The Usable Smart Grid

8 04 2009

Thanks to a media blitz, my mom now asks me what the heck a “Smart Grid” is.  It’s good question.  Obviously, it is a utility’s strategy for better demand side management.  But actual utility / consumer interaction plans vary.  Some envision the “house of the future” with smart appliances, and other strategies are just “reach out and shed someone” (remote control thermostats and pool pumps).

I contend, the “smart” in “smart grid” comes from consumers.  The success and utility (pun intended) of a smart grid rests in consumer adoption and behavior change.

Obviously, the term “smart grid” is overloaded.  But let’s consider how all consumers can smarten up the grid through direct action.  That means creating a simple way for all consumers to be aware of their energy use and how changing it will positively effect their cash flow.  OK, and perhaps their environmental impact.

In the conferences and meetings I’ve attended, I have only been obliquely exposed to the vision of how the customer interacts with the household-level information (usually via a web site).  One paper that came closest to addressing this in a more ubiquitous way was from Northern Europe.  Europe’s always pushing the envelope…

Conservation: Enabling informed choices at Home Depot

Efficient products are great, but as a CEO of a northeastern US utility pointed out, there is a socioeconomic aspect to this mode of energy conservation.  By pushing rebates for “greener appliances”, they were able to help people switch their buying habits.

It’s a fair point.  When I lived in Boulder, CO last year, many people there could “afford to be green” (coincidentally where Smart Grid City is). Let’s face it, there can be a premium associated with buying environmentally better products (whether that’s good, true, or green-washing is up for debate). 

Rip and replace strategies for demand side management / energy saving are basically single-action behavior changes (replace something wasteful with something that is less-so).  The consumer behavior may not change, but at least the energy footprint is smaller.

Examples include:

  • Replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFL’s
  • Identifying and replacing appliances that use the copious amounts of energy

Obviously, even before the recession hit, springing for a new refrigerator or dishwasher wasn’t at the top of everyone’s mind.  Especially if the actual economic return on investment is fairly small (10 year payout?  Hmmm…).

Active participation presents greater opportunity

At its most basic level, the smart grid could give everyone the opportunity to use a ubiquitous component in a smarter way: the on/off switch.

Everyone can turn something on or off – no upgrades needed. The smart grid should just tell them when to do so. 

The catch is – the information has to be available to all and simple to understand.

The key to active consumer-based demand side management will be adoption and culture change of habitual or unconscious behaviors.  This is an uphill battle in any circumstance. 

Realizing the potential of peak-shifting (moving peak energy demand to off hours where cheaper and / or cleaner energy is available) in a post-smart grid world goes beyond a smart meter installation.  It’s about framing the information in a usable format for the consumer.

We built it, but nobody came…

I’ve heard more than one utility mention that they want to develop a better relationship with customers by offering them more personalized information on their own utility web site.  That’s probably going too far for the average consumer.

Today, most people interact with the power company monthly by getting a confusing billing statement, then writing them a check.  If you have e-billing set up to auto-pay, you probably never even see a bill.

So, what if the utility framed the information in an always available, intelligible, and actionable format?

For many age and socioeconomic demographics, utilities must consider something as simple as a dedicated widget (maybe it’s their smart meter, but maybe not) that helps the consumer know:

  • Should I cut back on energy use now?
  • Is my rate going to change due to use?
  • How much energy am I using right now? (this may help pinpoint energy vampires in the home)
  • What’s the current “fuel source” (e.g. wind, solar, coal, gas, hydro etc.)?
  • How much will I save if I do my laundry an hour from now?
  • How much I have saved so far by setting my thermostat to 78F instead of 75F?

That’s a lot to digest – and it’s probably more information than the current price of energy provided by the smart meter itself.  Whatever it is must be intuitive, located somewhere central in the house, and low (or zero) cost.

The “drive-by” experience

Let’s consider the “at-a-glance” use case.  If you’re carrying a basket of laundry by something with a red light on it, you might consider doing that load of laundry later.

Simply augmenting the energy meter / device with something eye-catching and visible from a distance makes it so someone can effortlessly assess whether to change the thermostat or turn on the hot tub.

An example of this I’ve seen featured a South Korean pilot project that installed a series of lights over the household’s main door.  Fewer lights on meant rates were cheap (i.e. do laundry now!).  No usage numbers or pricing, just something you can see from across the room.  However, it lacked further detail and insight.

Adoption = success

If something provides extremely high value to a user, it almost doesn’t matter how hard it is to use… it will be adopted.  But the reward of the smart grid is going to be reaped by both the utility and the consumer.  Arguably, active consumer adoption would present the utility with even more reward (and will that be passed on to the consumer?).

Using the principles of “interaction design” to make the consumer side of smart grid work in the way that actual consumers behave is something I’ve yet to see demonstrated by a utility in their discussion of smart grid.  It’s the key to making more consumers active participants in smart grid.

Relying on technologies like computers, text messages, and the Internet will limit who can participate in the smart grid.  It also assumes a high consumer interest level (which is fine if there is a huge reward).  That doesn’t mean eliminating that web portal experience though…

Having an immersive web site experience is still a must (Smart Grid City includes energy portal screens as well).  Even if a consumer never logs in, knowing this portal exists is comforting.  However, the utility will likely achieve their peak shifting goals if they make smart grid participation simple, easy to understand, and available to everyone.

To really save energy, smart grid should totally empower consumers. 
That starts at simplicity, usability, and consumer adoption.

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