Reflections in the after-Glow

Oct 19, 2017 · 6 min read
Could a rethinking of the typical in-home display result in better energy savings? Image source

We were excited to see the recent success of the Glow Kickstarter campaign, raising $80k against their target of $75k for this attractive “smart energy tracker for your home.” Following in the footsteps of products like DIY Koyoto’s Wattson device — and taking some clear stylistic cues from Google Home — it’s an appealing and friendly “in-home display” (IHD), one that eschews the typical numbers, graphs and charts that dominate this product segment (see Efergy’s product suite as an example).

The Glow product is of particular interest to me, personally, as I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about the potential of products like Glow to influence behaviour to achieve energy conservation outcomes. In particular, my interest has centred around so-called “ambient interfaces” — embedding digital feedback mechanisms into our physical environment in more naturalistic and immersive ways.

In many respects, Glow is the embodiment of the things I was seeking out in my exploration, much of which is outlined in a presentation I gave at IxDA last year called Ambient Interfaces: processes for changing behaviour:

The Kickstarter pitch for Glow opens with this interesting tidbit:

“Years of research and hundreds of studies have been done on how people use energy. One thing everyone agrees on? Simple, real-time feedback helps reduce energy waste and can save 10%–20% or more on energy bills.”

I’ve also seen much research that makes this point, and this has been reinforced by our own experiences and conversations with customers here at Nexergy. It’s actually very difficult to make meaningful changes to our energy usage without being informed about what is using how much and when. When you consider most consumers get feedback only four times per year (that is, when they get their bill), it’s not hard to see why!

There are many factors that impact behaviour around energy that information alone doesn’t address. Image credit via Pinterest

However, as I highlighted in my presentation, providing information alone is insufficient to achieve behaviour change. There are loads of social-psychological and other contextual factors that can impact a person’s ability to change their energy consumption patterns. For example, a person may be constrained by what appliances they have in the home (e.g. requiring expensive upgrades to change), or limited by their home ownership status (for example, it can be harder for those that rent, or living in apartments, to make significant changes to their built environment.)

In-home displays, in particular, have been found to have mixed effectiveness in achieving behaviour change. Dr Yolande Strengers’ work in this area (some of which is highlighted in Smart Energy in Everyday Life) illustrates some of the challenges with IHDs. This research out of RMIT resulted in two interesting conclusions. The first likely won’t be a surprise: once the initial novelty factor rubs off, consumers utilising IHDs lose interest and become less responsive to high demand or high price signals.

The second is perhaps less obvious, but no less critical. Once someone has made changes in their household environment (switching lights to more efficient types or replaced energy-hungry appliances, for example) and personal practices (e.g. taking appliances off standby or reducing use of clothes dryers), the effectiveness and value of the monitor is greatly reduced.

But there are further challenges. When you consider the cost of such monitors usually sits above $100, the economic proposition can be questionable unless significant savings can be achieved. (Of course, environmental benefits are also a factor for many people purchasing these devices.) Glow’s Kickstarter pitch claims up to 40% of energy is wasted in a typical American home. But how much of this wastage can cost effectively be reduced? Particularly where actions to reduce usage require further expense, such as replacing a large appliance.

Also, IHD’s don’t inherently address where those savings can be achieved. From what we understand of Glow, for example, it doesn’t provide insights into where the electricity is being used within the home, making it difficult to work out whether changing the lights or the fridge will make a significant difference. Disaggregation technology, such as that employed by Bidgley or Australian-designed Wattcost, can help in this regard, and I suspect this might be something added into the Glow product in due course.

Real-time monitors like the Glow can also over-emphasise usage by high-power devices that may only be run for short periods, masking the impact of longer-running, lower powered devices that may use more energy over time.

Lastly, real time monitors often rely on the individual being physically present to effect change. Glow initially offered mobile-based alerts, but there was no way to respond to those alerts remotely using the Glow system. This is where home automation systems, like those we covered in our series of posts on the negawatt, can provide additional value. So it’s interesting to note that Glow recently announced integration with Amazon Echo and Philips Hue (smart lights) which will go some way in addressing this limitation.

I have to say, though, one of the most interesting things about the Glow product is not the physical design of the end-user display (the glowing bit), but the more boring, behind-the-scenes bit: how it captures information about your energy use.

The simple to install wireless sensor (on the left) is a lovely piece of product design. Check out Glow’s Kickstarter page for an animated demonstration of how it is installed.

The team behind Glow have done a great job creating an uninvasive, battery-powered device that just sits on your energy meter. It’s a very well considered piece of product design that removes a significant barrier to the uptake of these sorts of products because it doesn’t require an electrician to install, unlike many alternative offerings.

Unfortunately for us here in Australia, it only works with the smart meters in the USA. And despite its clever design, it still has some drawbacks. At the technical level, it uses magneto-resistive sensing and thus needs to be well isolated from any surrounding electro-magnetic interference. It may also not be that suitable for apartment dwellers who don’t have a separate meter, or who lack ready access to that meter even when the premises are separately metered.

In making these points, don’t get me wrong.

If nothing else, it demonstrates there is clear demand for this type of product, and not just among those that Dr Strengers describes as “Resource Man.” Heck, both Darius and I both would have pitched in to get (at least) one if it worked with Australian metering infrastructure. And all of this serves to reinforce, yet again, that there’s more to energy than economics.

Posted by Grant Young, Chief Experience Officer (CXO) of Nexergy.

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