Can Twitter help us to save energy at home?


There’s a house that tweets all of it’s energy usage. And that’s really just the beginning of the information it dumps onto Twitter every day. Even the mousetraps are wired into the matrix…

Residential energy use accounts for a little over 20% of US energy consumption and therefore represents a great opportunity for savings and efficiency. It’s no wonder then that huge companies like Google, Microsoft and GE, together with an ever-growing list of start-ups want to help you save energy at home. If they can save you energy, they’ll likely be saving you money too. And these days saving money is a big business opportunity!

We talk a lot about home energy usage with TerraPass customers and I’ve been thrilled to see the enthusiasm with which our customers embrace products such as the Kill A Watt and Home Powercost Monitor. But let’s be honest, these kinds of accessories are for the fanatics and my hunch is most of the people that buy them replaced their bulbs with CFLs long ago — they’re probably onto the LEDs by now. These are not products for mass-adoption, more’s the pity.

In reality, the American household is going to need a little more help and hand-holding. As the home energy management products and start-ups jockey for room in a crowded space, here are the four trends I see emerging:

**1. Personal action, efficiency**

Not much technology involved in this one, but worth mentioning all the same as there are plenty of those that believe we should all be able to realize significant savings simply by conserving our energy use. Tips abound on the internet, from the simplest (turn the lights off) to some of the more laborious (washing your air conditioner filters). The problem here of course is that if it were worth our while, we’d all be doing these things already — but people are willing to spend those few cents for the convenience. Maybe if energy prices rise significantly that might change.

**2. Spend some to save some**

Whether it’s covering your roof in solar panels or simply installing a programmable thermostat, there are all manner of investments we can make to improve energy consumption in our homes. Subsidizing more efficient appliances and larger-scale retrofits is a favorite of governments, especially when it creates “green jobs” in a down economy.

**3. See it: know the real-time cost**

I’ve seen a couple of different people explain this idea using a grocery store metaphor… so I’ll do my best to replicate that here. When you go to the grocery store, you push the cart around, checking the prices of items as you go. If there’s something you want to buy, you pick it up and put it in the cart. When you’re done you go the checkout and pay for everything in your cart.

So far, so good. But how is this relevant to energy? Well when you buy energy from your utility the experience is totally different. You use the energy through the month and a few weeks later you get the bill for everything you’ve used. It’s as if you’ve had no prices on any of the items in the grocery store and once you get to checkout, you must buy everything in your cart.

Well there are a number of companies working on being able to tell you the real-time prices. It requires varying degrees of technology and the co-operation of utilities. The end goal is that if you know how much energy you’re using in real-time (and how much it’s costing you), you’re likely to use less.

**4. Automation**

Strange confession time. When I was little I used to think it would be very cool to have a huge panel of switches by my bed. From here, I’d be able to control everything in the house: lights, faucets, tv, radios; I could even turn the dishwasher off when it was keeping me awake at night.

A few decades later and this is becoming something of a reality. Instead of a panel of switches it’s a touchscreen (or your iPhone perhaps) from which you can control various devices around the house. You may even want to program them so they come on when electricity is cheapest.

In it’s most advanced forms, this technology will allow your utility to control some of the biggest power-hogs you have and smooth the peaks of the local electricity demand, saving them a considerable amount of money, and generously handing a little of those savings on to you too.

So what’s going to work? And how long will it take? Which of these do you think is most likely to influence energy savings in your home? And at what cost?

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  1. Paul Amirto

    I installed a TED monitor last month and can’t believe how reducing and limiting use of juice guzzlers save big without a big inconvenience. It turned in to a game with my family. I’m estimating a 10-15% savings on my monthly bill. For us, that is a night out each month. The unit should pay for itself in 4-6 months.

  2. Don

    My personal experience makes me take issue with #1 in your list: “The problem here of course is that if it were worth our while, we

  3. Jim

    I think that, generally speaking, the average person (if there is such a thing) doesn’t consider a dollar saved as a dollar earned.
    For example, we recently moved from a large city to a fairly small town. As a result, we are driving just 40% of what we once did (8,500 miles per year down from 20,000 miles per year). We have gone from using 700 gallons of gasoline per year down to about 300 gallons. At, say, $2.25 per gallon, we have saved (i.e. not spent) $900 a year, or $75 a month.
    If we put this $75 a month to pay down the principal on our home mortgage ($115,000 at 6% for 30-year fixed loan), we are levering even further our savings (by avoiding future interest on our home loan).
    I will teach my two children the concept of interest, and of the old saying “A penny saved is a penny earned”.
    Because, it’s so true.

  4. Tom Harrison

    Pete —
    Great post — as always, a nice balance of optimism and realism.
    Being one of those fanatics you mention, I can assert that there are real savings to be had in all of the little things, at least as far as electricity goes. We have done a bunch of little things, and our bill is now less than 1/2 of what it would be had we not made changes (I can back up the numbers for this on my blog, this is not an estimate). Our monthly savings are more than $100 on electricity alone. And we still have some incandescent bulbs, and no LEDs 🙂
    The reality is, as you say, a little different for most people than for us fanatics. After taking advantage of a 75% rebate on home insulation offered by our regional utility (National Grid) we got some major leaks plugged and uninsulated areas filled for less than $500 (I deposited a rebate of $1,500 this week). The expected savings on heating for these changes are about $300 per year. I talked to two neighbors who “have been meaning to” get this kind of work done (one is a sustainability consultant) and neither did. It’s not often that you get a 75% discount on anything, especially something that also saves money. But still, the incentive was not enough.
    So perhaps the real issue is that people just cannot see, or believe, or be bothered by changes that only pay back over time … and worse, in some cases cost a little up front. Oh, and require some effort.
    I just came back from a visit to Europe, where the idea of conserving seems to be normal, not fanatic. No one used air conditioning, most people ride trains, and most cars are tiny by US standards … if they are not Vespas or bicycles!
    Maybe the secret to Europe’s success is simple: gasoline costs at least 3x more than in the US, and other energy does, too.
    Could it be, that here in the land of the capitalist we need to do something other than hope people will do the right thing? Gee, I don’t know, maybe somehow put a price on the costs associated with energy usage. Hey, maybe we could make use of costly and polluting energy sources … costly.
    (The ACES climate bill that passed the house in June might start the ball rolling on this … but it will be interesting to see if we have the will to actually pass something similar in the Senate this fall).
    There’s no doubt in my mind: if (when) the price of energy goes up, people will react and realize that it is worth investment, now.
    Until then, we’re all just doing what makes sense for us, which is, frankly, to use energy as though it were almost free … which for now, it is.

  5. 144, $26.72

    It’s something of an irony, I’ll admit. My pet peeve is people who don’t know utility usage from their aunt’s fanny, they only the amount of the bill. “How many kilowatts did you use this month? $67.” How much water did you use? $54.97.” Idiots. However, my irritation is really due to the annoying reality that the actual utility use is such a small cost compared to the adminstrative cost that the comparison of the total bill as I adjust kWh usage is absurd. Woo hoo, I saved $.57 this month. I really start to seem like the idiot for worrying about kilowatt usage, when it’s a mere 10% of my total bill. If the cost saving is the motivator, at a certain point, counting kWh doesn’t cut it.