By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, November 24, 2014 —
A couple of years ago, when global politics sent gasoline prices racing towards $5 per gallon, drivers made a conscious effort to reduce consumption. They consolidated errands, eliminated or reduced road trips, carpooled and even traded in gas guzzlers for more energy-efficient cars.
Getting consumers to reduce residential energy usage is a little more difficult. Electricity is far less expensive a commodity, and most people don’t think twice about plugging in their often power-hungry plug-load devices. Many don’t realize that appliances, computers, electronics and lighting can cost upwards of $600 a year to keep charged and ready to use.
Enter the California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug), located at Calit2. Formed in 2011, the center was established to improve energy efficiency in the design and use of appliances and consumer electronic devices.
One of its first projects, the “Wall of Power,” is a simulated living room projected onto a wall, and equipped with everyday plug-in entertainment and household devices. “Consumers” power devices on and off using an iPad, and watch in real time how that changes energy consumption.
“The Wall of Power was designed to be a physical-virtual interface that fuses the abstract concept of energy usage with concrete devices,” says CalPlug Technical Director Arthur Zhang. “Home entertainment systems are responsible for about 60 percent of total plug-load usage. If you can see directly how your monthly energy bill will be impacted, presumably you will take action to reduce it.”
Now, researchers are partnering with DIRECTV and Southern California Edison to create a product that will put similar capabilities directly into consumers’ living rooms. With a click of their remote, Edison customers who also subscribe to DIRECTV will be able to access electricity usage data on their television sets. Consumers will immediately understand how much electricity they’ve used to date, what price ‘tier’ that puts them in, and their remaining allotment if they want to stay in that tier. They’ll also access billing cycle information, and will be able to toggle between day-to-day and hourly usage figures.
CalPlug developed the software “widget” that runs with the DIRECTV set-top box software system, thanks to the company’s third-party developer program. “This program provides the foundation for our partners to build innovative products and services,” said Matt Thompson, DIRECTV director of software engineering. “Through open APIs developers can create unique experiences that engage customers and deliver additional value.”
Researchers demonstrated the prototype at DIRECTV’s El Segundo lab last spring. Pending additional funding from Southern California Edison, a pilot program encompassing 100 homes is expected to begin later this fall.
Neha Arora, SCE project manager, says the collaboration is one of the utility’s first steps towards understanding the impact of consumer behavior on overall energy consumption.
“As new technologies evolve, it is imperative that we understand how a consumer interacts with these technologies and how these technologies can impact the use of electricity [in buildings],” he says. “We are just venturing into this arena and hope to find some useful insights that we can apply to our energy efficiency programs that ultimately benefit our end users.”
Edison will supply aggregated electricity usage data for each household in the pilot project, but eventually, smart meters will supply real-time data. The current prototype aggregates each home’s total energy usage and displays it in a user-friendly way.
“You don’t want to make the first product too complicated. You want to introduce consumers to the idea slowly, one function at a time,” Zhang says.
An attractive, easy-to-use design is essential. CalPlug is discussing a partnership with the Transformational Media Lab at UCI’s Center for Security Affairs to design an effective interface.
“As eco-feedback continues to grow in popularity, so will the importance of designing displays that are legible, pleasing and interpretable to users,” says Beth Karlin, TML director.
For now, researchers are concentrating on user interfaces and bug fixes for the project’s rollout.
During the one-year pilot program, user data will be collected via click rates, similar to the way website analytics are amassed, and additional feedback will be gathered through in-person and telephone surveys. All feedback will be incorporated into the design of a second phase, which Zhang hopes will grow to encompass 1,000 homes. “We’re going to continue to refine the design,” he says.
“This type of display has never been done before,” Zhang adds, but researchers have good reason to bet on its success. “Nielsen statistics say Americans watch TV for five hours a day. This is an effective way to reach a large audience,” he says.
“This project is aligned with what the utilities and the state want, which is to reach the greatest number of people who can be taught to adopt a more energy-efficient lifestyle.”