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How to track your real-time residential energy usage

2014 February 11

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In January, I attended a “data science and sustainability” meetup held at OPower. The topic was “Driving Behavior Change with Energy Insights”. To make a long story short, one of OPower’s business models is to take over a given utility’s billing structure and provide customers with easy to understand information on how much energy you use compared to neighbors with similar homes. This method is based off of a study where statisticians hung signs on people’s doorknobs to save energy. One said, “Save energy, it saves you money.” Another said, “Save energy, be a good citizen.” And the last one said, “Save energy, it’s good for the environment.” Apparently, none of them worked in convincing people to use less energy. They tried one last doorknob hanger: “Your neighbor uses less energy than you.” And voila! Statistically significant energy savings were realized over time, simply because of this message. OPower has used this concept in their billing. If you access your PG&E bill online, you will see something like the graph above (note: this is only for electricity, and not for gas), comparing you to “all similar homes” (for me, it was single family homes of a similar size that use natural gas for heating and are within half a mile). The “efficient similar homes” are apparently the lowest quintile of energy consumption. It may well be that those homes have less people living in them. Or perhaps they are simply greener than Sustainable John.

But not for long! Let’s see if we can save some energy around the house. PG&E was actually one of the first utilities to take on the “Green Button” initiative, an effort to release basic household energy data to customers in usable formats. The initiative was supported by the Department of Energy and even the White House. Essentially, you can have data about how much power your house uses in 15 minute, hourly, daily, and monthly increments. However, the data is not in real-time, rather it’s a few days old (on a Tuesday night, I can have access to data through Sunday night). DOE supported a bunch of hackathons around this initiative, which launched dozens of app ideas and a couple companies along the way, one of which is Bidgely. Bidgely has a service where you can input your utility log-in information, and it will analyze your home energy usage in more ways than PG&E’s site can. It’s easy to pull up your monthly energy use, broken out by each day.

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 And then you can click on a particular day and see hourly interval data, with some helpful daily average consumptions. Now, you can begin to see the patterns of roommates bustling to get ready in the morning and coming home in the evening, which is when utilities commonly hit their peak loads.

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In fact, the smart meters that PG&E has installed in nearly all of their service territory are collecting many more data points than this. And now, due to a device called a Home Area Network (HAN) device, customers can now get now get access to this data. I just installed my HAN device this past weekend, and now am collecting real-time energy use data in 5-minute intervals (seen below), which is a big improvement over the hourly interval above. I can now know how much energy the house is using at any given time. At 7:20AM, I was in the kitchen using the lights and the toaster. At 8PM, I was using the clothes washer and dryer. As this data is captured, Bidgely is analyzing it using different algorithms, to understand how much of my usage is due to the various appliances in our household: refrigeration vs. vampire loads vs. clothes dryers, for example. The granular data will eventually help me to sort out where I can focus my energy efficiency efforts, whether it’s in more efficient lighting, tackling vampire loads, or getting rid of that old, clunky fridge.

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If you would like to track your energy usage, a good place to start would be to make sure you have your PG&E online profile set up. Then, you can sign up for a service like Bidgely. They even have a mobile app (iPhone and Android), so it’s easy to track your hourly interval data. If you want to buy a HAN device, you can find more information on PG&E’s recently launched HAN device portal. The one I bought was pretty steep, about $100 in cost. But, you could maybe convince Bidgely to send you one for free, and hopefully they’ll come down in cost over time. If you don’t live in PG&E territory, check to see if your utility is signed on to the Green Button initiative and whether or not they have deployed smart meters.

In OPower’s presentation, they revealed that their comparison methods had resulted in verified 2-3% energy savings on average per customer in the territories where they are working with utilities. While this number is certainly nothing to cough at, it does suggest that there is a still a huge potential for energy efficiency out there. And companies are piling in to the residential and small commercial energy efficiency space to capitalize on this influx of data and see if customers will act on it. Besides Bidgely, there’s Simple Energy, PlotWatt, Ohmconnect, and also WattTime (a winner in last year’s hackathon). BERC is also beginning to participate in this data revolution. Stay tuned for forthcoming information on two new BERC Communities, Cleanweb and InfoEnergy Nexus, as well as the second annual Berkeley Cleanweb hackathon to be held on April 18-20, 2014.

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