Energy Dashboards: Using Real-Time Feedback to Influence Behavior
All right, I’ll admit it. Like a lot of people, I’ve been known to drive with a heavy foot. Sometimes I have a good reason, but often not. Unlike many people, though, I’m able to see just how much worse my fuel economy is when I’m rushed and driving faster. Seeing my average fuel economy drop on my dashboard display encourages me to slow down. This is sometimes referred to as the Prius effect, though in my case I’m driving a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid.
Can the same principle apply to buildings? If we provide real-time information to building occupants on their energy consumption, will they be encouraged to conserve? A growing number of products are designed to do this—some focus only on electricity, others look more broadly at energy, and a few also track water use.
Evidence of Energy Savings
In 2006 and 2007, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, set out to determine how much energy could be saved if consumers could view their moment-to-moment electricity use and were provided with the means to adjust their power use through online controls. They provided 112 homeowners on the Olympic Peninsula with advanced digital controls on their heating systems, water heaters, and clothes washers. Through an online interface, the homeowners could set their sensitivity to electricity prices (which varied according to peak utility periods) and their level of tolerance for fluctuating temperatures and other inconveniences that may occur from reducing electricity use during peak periods. Their electricity use was then adjusted automatically.
Participants in this GridWise demonstration project reduced their electricity bills by about 10%, and the utility company determined that, based on the customer response in this demonstration, if implemented utility-wide the technology would result in a 15% reduction in peak loads.
Integrating buildings with “smart grid” technologies like those studied by PNNL may be the ultimate in integrated feedback and control of energy use, but it’s not necessary to wait for utility companies to offer such programs. Numerous energy “dashboard” systems that are available to anyone can influence behavior by displaying instantaneous consumption of electricity, natural gas, and even water.
In August 2007, Agilewaves, one of the technology leaders in building dashboards (and a 2008 BuildingGreen Top-10 product award winner), installed one of its systems in a new spec house in Palo Alto, California. Agilewaves cofounder and CEO Peter Sharer told EBN that the energy monitoring system was a big factor in the home’s quick sale—it sold in three days for more than the asking price. The owner has been tracking his energy use intently and challenging himself to use less and less energy.
Lucid Design Group, which was one of the first companies out of the gates with a user-friendly interface displaying building energy consumption (see EBN), got its start at Oberlin College when several of the company founders were still students. The students, inspired to save energy by their professors, organized an energy-saving competition among several dormitories at the college and created a user interface to display the real-time and cumulative energy consumption on computer monitors. Lucid, like Agilewaves, is fundamentally a software company, focused on the display of information. “The key for us is having a consumer interface that’s intuitive and user-friendly,” Murray told EBN.
Since that start, Lucid Design Group co-founder and president Michael Murray has branched out to office buildings, including a system at Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, California office park, where five buildings are being monitored by a Lucid system. At the same time, Lucid continues to focus on colleges and universities, with the company having installed nearly 25 such systems in the past four years, some of which also track water use. Inter-dorm competitions remain popular, and dormitories routinely see a 10% to 15% reduction in energy use during these 4- to 12-week competitions, says Murray. The company plans to study whether, and to what extent, savings continue.
A company with preliminary data on sustained energy savings is Quality Attributes Software, makers of the Green Touchscreen (see below). The company installed touchscreen kiosks at the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa in San Francisco, a LEED Gold certified building. According to Craig Engelbrecht, chief marketing officer for Quality Attributes Software, the hotel saw a 26% drop in energy costs and a 45% drop in water costs after installing the kiosk. Engelbrecht acknowledged that the company hadn’t been able to track the source of such dramatic savings, but he noted that all guests at the hotel are oriented to the Green Touchscreen on checking in. Guests can also view real-time metrics for the hotel through a channel on the televisions in their rooms, although room-specific data is not available.
In homes, the makers of the Powercost Monitor, Blue Line Innovations, has compiled a number of studies showing that providing real-time information feedback to utility customers consistently results in reductions in whole-house electricity consumption of 7%–12%. In long-term trials, behavioral changes can become so routine that customers are no longer aware of them. Depending on the product, monitoring systems consume some degree of energy themselves, but this should be dwarfed by savings.
Whole Building Systems
Full-featured systems for displaying detailed information on whole-building resource use are more common for commerciail buildings, though some are going into homes.
Menlo Park, California
The Agilewaves Resource Monitor provides residential and commercial building owners with real-time data on electricity, gas, and water consumption. This Web-based system can monitor data from circuits, rooms, water lines, and appliances. Agilewaves can also track, store, and analyze temperature, humidity, output from photovoltaic and solar water heating systems, utility costs, and carbon footprint information. It can also communicate with certain building management systems to actively manage loads based on real-time usage. The Resource Monitor can help reduce energy, gas, and water consumption by up to 20%, according to the company. Each system is custom-configured and can be adapted to monitor unusual flows such as runoff from green roofs. The least expensive residential Agilewaves system costs $7,900 and includes meters for whole-house electricity, gas, and water consumption, plus detailed energy or water use on seven circuits. Actual installed systems have ranged in cost from $10,000 to $80,000. If the company is able to replace the onsite central processing unit with Internet-based software, costs could eventually drop to a few thousand dollars.
Lucid Design Group, LLC
The Building Dashboard from Lucid Design Group got its start at Oberlin College, where students developed a monitoring system to compare energy use by different dormitories; several students commercialized the first user-friendly energy dashboard system for commercial and institutional buildings. Their company has developed touch-screen displays that show the real-time use of energy and water in an attractive and easy-to-understand manner. Most of Lucid Design’s systems have been installed at colleges and universities, including a system collecting data from 50 buildings at Elon University, but the company has several systems in commercial buildings as well. System costs are typically in the range of $25,000 to $50,000 if meters are not already in place, and $10,000 to $20,000 if meters are present.
Green Touchscreen and iBPortal Dashboard
Quality Attributes Software, Inc.
The Green Touchscreen is a Web-based, interactive program designed for kiosk display to help building occupants in educational settings see and learn from energy consumption in a building. The company also offers the iBPortal, a platform for collecting, analyzing, and displaying real-time data on building performance, including electricity and natural gas consumption, water consumption, indoor air quality, and energy production from renewable energy systems. The iBPortal supports public dashboards like the Green Touchscreen, but it also can support internal building management systems. In addition, third parties can build applications compatible with the iBPortal for specific building systems. Systems average between $20,000 and $30,000.
Numerous systems are available for homeowners and small commercial buildings to offer real-time feedback on electricity use and draw attention to cost-saving opportunities.
Insight and Vantage
Tendril Networks, Inc.
Tendril, Inc., foresees a thoroughly networked system of communication between utilities and electricity consumers and their individual electric loads, and has developed a number of products that move toward that end. Its Insight energy monitor is a small, freestanding display for use in the home; the Vantage is an Internet-browser-based product. Both track the cost and consumption of electricity in real time while allowing the user to see what loads are responsible for what usage. They can also issue alerts from utilities. Tendril’s systems work in concert with special wireless-enabled devices, such as electrical outlets and meters, and with TREE, the Tendril Residential Ecosystem platform. Tendril’s systems provide fine-grained understanding and control but require an array of wireless devices—and the participation of utilities—to operate at their full potential. Basic installation costs $100; more complete systems could be much more costly.
Blue Line Innovations, Inc.
St. Johns, Newfoundland
The PowerCost Monitor is an affordable, real-time electricity meter similar to The Energy Detective. The transmitting device with this product clamps onto the standard electricity meter outside a home or small commercial building, and data is transmitted wirelessly to a receiver indoors. Both the transmitter and receiver are battery-powered. The display can be programmed for either single-rate electricity pricing or tiered (peak and off-peak) pricing. The user enters electricity costs (including both peak and off-peak if applicable), and the unit is then able to display real-time costs of electricity for the house. Tens of thousands of utility customers in Canada and the U.S. have received PowerCost Monitors through programs to reduce electricity demand, with measured savings as great as 18% in Newfoundland and Labrador. Retail price: $149.99.
The Energy Detective (TED)
Charleston, South Carolina
The Energy Detective (TED) is a simple, inexpensive device for displaying real-time electricity use in an entire home or on a single circuit. A transmitting device is installed in the home’s circuit breaker by clamping it onto the main incoming electrical leads. Once installed, it sends data to the receiver, a small LCD display that plugs into a wall outlet and sits on a shelf or table showing real-time electricity consumption. A more sophisticated model communicates with a personal computer, allowing peak electricity loads to be reduced (load-shedding) and providing graphs of historical electricity use. The retail price for Model 1001 with computer interface is $144.95.
Energy Joule and Energy Orb
Ambient Devices, Inc.
The Energy Joule is a small plug-in display that shows current electricity use and cost, along with weather data. The display also changes color on a “stoplight model”—green, yellow, and red—to indicate relative energy cost. Data is sent to the device using cell-phone technology. Ambient Devices also offers the Energy Orb, a frosted glass ball which glows in stoplight colors to indicate relative energy costs at a glance. Both products are available only through participating utilities, with cost depending on the utility program.
ECM 1220 Energy Monitor
Brultech Research, Inc.
St. Catharines, Ontario
The ECM 1220 Energy Monitor, available in both a portable professional model and a home model designed for permanent installation, is a sophisticated device for measuring electricity consumption in homes or small commercial buildings. With optional software, the unit displays kilowatt-hour (kWh) use and cost of energy used; displays average daily, weekly, and monthly electricity costs; allows users to set and track a target electricity budget; detects unusual electricity consumption that may indicate faulty equipment or other problems; and helps identify appliances and other electrical loads in need of repair or replacement. It is available in a wireless model (ECM-1220.H-X). The same monitor is available through Optimum Energy Products, Ltd. (), branded as the EML 2020 Portable Power Monitor.
– Alex Wilson