Smart, social energy: Can software change our energy habits?

Prof Nick Jennings demonstrates how his software can be used to identify those in the office who use most energy

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Gary in Sales is today's worst offender, again. He's clocked up 2.3 kilowatt hours (kWh) this time, a personal worst. He never switches off his PC before he leaves work, and keeps a personal kettle.

More surprising is that Sue in marketing is not far behind him at 2.1kWh. But then she been known to leave her electric hair tweezers charging overnight.

Could this be the office gossip of the near future?

Conversations like this are already happening amongst Prof Nick Jennings's team at Southampton University, where he is testing out his smart energy software. His students have signed up as guinea pigs.

Their workstation areas, equipped with power-hungry gear, are rigged up to a central database which then displays a league of shame on a monitor.

office The workstations of Prof Jennings's team are monitored, to create an energy league

The team is working on software to help people cut their energy use without having to spend too much time working out how to do it.

Firms including British Gas already offer software allowing consumers to monitor and control their central heating from afar.

The intention is to take this to the next level with a system that can analyse the energy use of every device in a home and suggest ways to use them more efficiently - or simply to replace them with better, cheaper-to-run equipment.

Prof Jennings says this will be essential in a future in which non-renewable energy sources are running out, and greener alternatives such as wind and wave power cost more to use.

But his ambitions can only come to fruition if the UK government proceeds with plans for a national "smart grid" - a network that provides both electricity and two-way communications technology, allowing utilities and the public to monitor and remotely adjust the millions of devices that make use of its power.

Equipment could be adjusted, for example, to minimise energy use during peak times, putting less strain on resources.

The proposal is being discussed at a two-day Smart Metering Forum in London.

While backers like Prof Jennings say a smart grid can facilitate the intelligent management of future energy resources, critics counter that a centralised smart grid is both unworkable, and a threat to civil liberties.

Smart Energy

The focus of Prof Jennings's smart energy project is to create software for in-home displays (IHDs).

According to the 2008 Energy Act, these read-out devices should become commonplace in our homes.

Energy companies have already given out thousands to customers, and they will only go mainstream in 2014 when a government mandated mass roll-out is set to begin.

Smart meters are replacing so-called "dumb meters" - the devices in most of our houses which keep a record of our energy consumption, and need to be visually inspected to calculate bills.

Digital smart meters will feed this essential information back to energy companies directly, in real-time. But they will also give householders new powers to control their energy output.

Connected wirelessly to smart meters, IHDs can let people turn a light off in their bathroom, and provide near-immediate feedback on how this affects their energy use. They can also tell people how much their current electricity consumption is costing them, and how this compares to their recent bills.

Professor Nick Jennings demonstrates the in-house display system his team has developed

The software that Prof Jennings's team is developing promises to build on this and give people greater control.

It allows temperature in the home to be set according to how much money a user is willing to spend, or how much of a carbon footprint they are willing to leave.

Any appliance fitted with sensors can relay information. The software also learns the energy profile of the house, and then compares this to outside weather conditions to predict future energy use.

"The software will learn your energy profile over time," the professor says.

It can then make suggestions on what to change - be it a sluggish toaster, or an under-performing fridge. It becomes what he terms an "energy avatar".

"Interacting with you, it might say, for example, if your washing machine is very inefficient, if you bought a new one within a certain period of time you would have got that money back."

It might also make "intelligent suggestions", prompting you to adjust your habits to save money, perhaps taking your evening shower a little later to save money.

The intention is for the software to be able to interact with price comparison sites to suggest cheaper tariffs.

"People are not interested in spending lots of time investigating their energy usage, even though it is such a big bill, so it makes sense to let machines automate some of the process," says Prof Jennings.

Smart Move?

But not all industry experts agree there is a market, or indeed a need, for this kind of technology.

Ross Anderson, a Cambridge computer science professor and chair of the Foundation for Information Policy Research think tank, has published several reports criticising smart meters, comparing them to failed government centralising projects such as National ID cards and the NHS National Programme for IT.

A smart grid would be a "strategic vulnerability", he says, allowing terrorists to shut down power remotely, the "modern day equivalent of a nuclear strike".

And aside from security concerns, Prof Anderson believes that outside the lab, smart energy software fails to change people's behaviour.

The experiments done into IHDs use samples that are too small, and their results are inconclusive, he suggests.

In practice, people "can't be bothered" in the UK to make changes, says Prof Anderson, partly because energy is too cheap, and partly because we don't use as much power-hungry air conditioning equipment as other countries.

However, he is more impressed with Prof Jennings's experiment on his students in the workplace.

If you really want to reduce energy consumption, extreme social pressure is the way to do it, says Prof Anderson.

A "pervasive surveillance structure" for society with a public hall of shame, singling out worst offending households to ridicule, would work, says Prof Anderson. "But the implications for social liberties are appalling."

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