Metered Conservation

Several years ago, I was in the market for a new car. I did a lot of research into vehicle dependability, safety, customer satisfaction, and warranty. I wasn’t surprised with the results. I was looking at mid-size sedans, and the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were high on the list. Then, I looked at fuel economy. Almost all of the cars were around 30 miles per gallon. But there was one outlier — a car that averaged 55 miles per gallon. And, the car got better mileage in town than it did on the highway. I had never heard of such a thing, and had to learn more.

Photo credit: listener42 on flickr

What I quickly found out was that this car was a hybrid. The Toyota Prius had just undergone a redesign for the 2004 model year, and it was starting to gain some attention. Because oil was still around $30 a barrel, the US market wasn’t paying attention to fuel economy yet. I had a hard time finding sales people who knew anything about the Prius, and an even harder time finding one to test drive. When I finally did find a dealer who would let me drive one, I slipped behind the wheel and noticed an LCD screen in the middle of the dashboard. I had never seen this before. The screen displayed the car’s current gas mileage, and was updated every few seconds.

So, when I hit the gas to accelerate, the mileage went down to near zero. When I let up on the accelerator to coast down a hill, the mileage shot up to near 100 MPG. I quickly learned that if I accelerate more slowly, I get better mileage. If I ease off the gas and slowly coast to a stoplight, I get better mileage than I do if I hit the brakes at the last minute. This data, provided in real time, on the dash board, trains the driver to conserve energy.

I’m not saying that the Prius doesn’t have innovative technology that goes a long way toward improving fuel economy. It most certainly does. But a big part of their gains in the real world are realized by teaching the driver to be more efficient.

In South Africa, electricity works on a pre-pay model. When you need electricity, you go down to the local fish market and buy some. You give them $45, and they give you 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the form of a card with a code on it. You take the card home, and punch the code into your electric meter (which is conveniently located inside the house). The LCD screen increases the number of credits you have, and you’re all set. As you use electricity, the credits get deducted. You can always look at the meter to see how much electricity you have left. When the number reaches zero, the power goes out.

This model makes energy use tangible for the consumer. Turn on the dishwasher, or clothes dryer, or space heater, and the numbers go down faster. People living in this environment know how much energy is used by various tasks. They’re more likely to turn off appliances and lights when they’re not being used. They use less hot water. They keep the room temperature a degree or two colder than they otherwise might. The meter makes people conservationists.

There’s even some research to support this. In 2006, the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford completed a literature review on this.

“Overall, the literature demonstrates that clear feedback is a necessary element in learning how to control fuel use more effectively over a long period of time and that instantaneous direct feedback in combination with frequent, accurate billing (a form of indirect feedback) is needed as a basis for sustained demand reduction. Thus feedback is useful on its own, as a self-teaching tool. It is also clear that it improves the effectiveness of other information and advice in achieving better understanding and control of energy use.”

So how do you get information about your energy use? You go to Google, of course, the keeper of all knowledge. Last week, they announced a partnership with a company called Energy, Inc. Consumers purchase and install a TED 5000 electricity monitoring device for about $200. The devices monitors electricity usage in the home. It communicates with Google’s free Power Meter software, and consumers can view current and historical energy usage in their homes. It also compares your energy use with others, and with your own historical data. Power Meter integrates with iGoogle, so this data can be displayed as a widget on your web portal.

On this blog action day, many bloggers around the world are focusing on climate change issues. One of the biggest components of climate change is energy use. We’ve been using far more than our fair share for a long time now, and reversing that trend starts in the home.