From information to automation: the future of information-based behavioral programs

Apr 24, 2014

More and more, homes and businesses are being equipped with 'smart devices' that play a role in energy usage and control.  These smart devices -- meters, lighting controls, thermostats and other hvac controls -- are contributors to the ever-growing sea of data that has been labeled 'big data'. But big data can mean big problems without big ideas for what to do with it.

Data, data, data

Early in my career I was involved in the design and development of some of the first multi-function digital energy meters. In the race to provide the most advanced device, we worked to add more "capability" -- often times this meant more metered values, more onboard data logging, and more features that needed to be configured. These were powerful, but complex devices. The unintended side-effect of all of this power and complexity was that the equipment was seldom used to its full capability. Often, an advanced, multifunction meter, replete with months of detailed time-of-use energy data and power quality diagnostics, was used only as a means to spot check current and voltage readings.

The downside to the end-users was that they had to pay to attend courses to learn how to use the equipment and interpret the data. The side benefit to our company was that we were able to create another revenue stream by offering a series of training courses to end users --so many that we labeled it a ‘university'.

This has been both the blessing and the curse of data rich devices. The sea of data they produce causes statisticians, energy engineers, and research scientists to salivate with excitement at the possibilities for analysis; and the inherent complexity keeps customer training departments, technical writers, and tech support staff employed. But the average conservation-minded homeowner or commercial facility manager's eyes glaze over when faced with interpreting and acting on the data.

From data to information

As the volume of available energy-related data grew, end-users' time and interest in interpreting the data to determine actionable results began to shrink (figure 1). Consider the analogy that energy-related data are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, provide a roadmap to energy efficiency.  Users don’t want the pieces of the puzzle, they want the completed roadmap.

Energy efficiency solution providers -- and utilities seeking to encourage energy efficiency -- moved from providing data, to providing actionable information. Behavioral energy efficiency programs, such as home energy report programs, are designed to do just that -- provide information that moves a consumer to act. But are they effective?

When well-designed and executed, the answer to this is -- to an extent. Home energy report programs that rely solely on a ‘push’ of information to consumers in order to motivate behavioral change are reported to typically reduce consumption by 1-3 percent. But will these information-based programs produce the same results 5 or more years into the future? I am not so sure they will.

From information to automation

As our world continues to become increasingly automated, I predict that consumer willingness to take action based on information alone will begin to wane, and be replaced by a growing acceptance, indeed a growing expectation, that smart devices will start to take more of  the needed actions on their behalf (figure 2).

Many equipment manufacturers have started down this road -- thermostats that automatically learn and adjust setback schedules to match the habits of the occupants are an example. But there is still much progress to be made.

Utilities who keep an eye on this trend and adapt their program designs and customer engagement approaches accordingly, will continue to meet savings goals.