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Contact Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel


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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Efficient Energy Use

An App that’s Changing Utility Customers’ Behavior

Most electricity customers have no idea what the size of their current bill is. A new app allows customers in Fort Collins, Colorado to obtain up-to-the-minute data.

Fort Collins, Colorado is on track to becoming the first city in the U.S. to use a new mobile app that makes energy demand information available to utility consumers in near real time. The information, which includes the changing cost of power at different times of day, is helping consumers to stay within their energy budgets, while helping utilities avoid the use of expensive “peaking” power.

Farshid Arman has some peculiar habits. For example, the washing machine and the dishwasher in his home in Lafayette, California, have post-it notes on them that say, “Do not start before 9 p.m.!!” The reason for this stern reminder is that Arman’s electricity rates vary throughout the day, and prices are especially low after 9 p.m. His cost-consciousness isn’t always popular, however. For example, his son Aaron once came home before nine desperate to wash some clothes he had gotten dirty, and he therefore offered his father five dollars if he could do his laundry immediately. It was a tempting offer, but Arman stood firm.

Arman may soon be able to stop posting notes on his appliances . That’s because, as an expert for smart grid technology and renewable energy at the Siemens Technology-to-Business Center in Berkeley, California he – along with colleague Zack Derich from Siemens’ U.S. subsidiary eMeter – has developed a Web-based smartphone app for monitoring electricity consumption — and even gas and water use — almost in real time. Energy Engage Mobile is the name of the program, which was developed over a six-month at eMeter. The program is actually a mobile version of eMeter’s Energy Engage Web portal, which is.  already being used by several power suppliers in the U.S.  to keep their grid customers continually informed about their electricity use. . Now, thanks to the new app, the service is available to customers who are on the move.

Why Near-Real-Time Billing Information Can Lead to Huge Savings

The app displays current energy use, current cost of energy, the projected bill for the current month, and the resulting savings (or extra costs) as compared to the previous month. The app thus makes consumers aware of how much energy they’re actually using in near real time rather than waiting to get a bill  weeks later. It can also lead to huge savings, as was demonstrated in a study published in 2012 by economist Hunt Allcott from New York University and psychologist Todd Rogers from Harvard University. The study showed that consumers who received a monthly electricity bill that displayed their daily power consumption and compared it to that of their neighbors significantly reduced their electricity use.

However, the observed effect only lasted for a few days after they received the bills. After that, their demand rose again — on average, so much so that it canceled out the original savings. However, the study also found that if consumers continued to receive such bills over a long period of time, their energy demand habits eventually changed permanently, with the savings achieved ranging from one to five percent. An app that updates information regarding electricity use in near  real time has the same effect — it motivates users to reducedemand , save money, and form new habits. “This is important for power supply companies,” says Arman. “Lower demand  of this order of magnitude significantly reduces stress on the grid.” The new app also offers energy-saving tips, options for paying bills immediately online, and information about when power outages will be fixed.

A new mobile app makes consumers aware of how much energy they’re using in near real time -- and how much they can save by changing their demand.

Fort Collins, Colorado, which has been using the Energy Engage Web portal since June 2014, is on track to becoming the first city in the U.S. to offer the new app.   It plans to make it available before the end of 2014. “This mobile solution is the centerpiece of our smart grid plans,” says Steve Catanach, Light and Electricity Manager at Fort Collins Utilities. “The app enables customers to manage their electricity use more effectively and enables us to deliver better service.” The city’s smart grid infrastructure includes around one hundred thousand electricity and water meters installed in private households, schools, and businesses. A wireless network links substations, meters, and control centers so that problems can be detected quickly. And a pilot program now enables power companies to remotely reduce the supply of electricity to the heating or air conditioning systems of certain customers during peak demand periods. Plans for the future include the introduction of flexible electricity prices that vary throughout the day and year.

The Energy Engage portal — and thus the app — use EnergyIP software from eMeter as a platform. Fort Collins itself has been working with EnergyIP since 2012. Among other things, the platform enables the control center to access and analyze demand data from electricity and water meters. This data used to be recorded hourly and then summarized at eight-hour intervals; on the following day it was made available for customers to view via their online accounts. The Energy Engage portal and the app have shortened the intervals, so that electricity demand data is now sent  to the power supplier every 15 minutes and then forwarded to customer accounts shortly after. The app is perfect for the concept utilized here because, unlike desktop computers, smartphones are constantly used to view e-mails, read the news, play games, and make calls. In other words, information about your current energy use is always in your pocket.

A System that Rewards Reduced Electricity Use

The app and the Energy Engage portal are also very practical because of the nature of electricity pricing systems in the U.S. Fort Collins, for example, offers its customers a basic 500 kW-hour monthly package. As soon as demand exceeds that level, prices begin rising. Other U.S. power suppliers base their rates on the time of day. For example, some companies in California have a cheap and an expensive daily rate in the fall, spring, and winter, but their prices rise in the summer, when air conditioners dramatically drive updemand. In such a situation, it would pay off for consumers to have the Energy Engage portal or the app inform them when their monthly bill is about to exceed the limit they have set for themselves. All they’d have to do then is to turn on the washing machine a little later, or turn up the heat in the winter  when electricity is less expensive.

Electricity consumers in Fort Collins no longer have to wait for a meter reader.

How do power companies benefit from this? Don’t they earn less when electricity demand declines? The answer is “no” in Colorado and more than 20 other states in the U.S. where power companies’ earnings and electricity demand have been decoupled. This setup works as follows: The power company is legally guaranteed a certain profit regardless of how much electricity it sells. What’s more, the associated legislation stipulates that a company’s earnings will increase if it gets its customers to conserve electricity by a given percentage (percentages vary from state to state). In addition, such companies have an incentive to manage demand during peak periods in order to avoid having to fire up expensive “peaking” facilities , or even risk overloading the grid, which could result in a blackout.

The Energy Engage portal and its associated app are only the beginning for Siemens. Derich’s team is thinking about integrating additional features. One possibility would be to use overall demand patterns to calculate how much power individual appliances consume; this might encourage people to get rid of older refrigerators and other power gluttons. Another option would be to link thermostats with the portal and app software in order to monitor and regulate interior temperatures. Weather forecasts could also be integrated with this data in order to determine how much electricity a home solar power unit might deliver over the next few days, for example. Arman himself would like to start using the app soon in his own house in California. Still, even without it, he’s ahead of the energy curve.. “We’ve installed a solar power unit, and the kids have moved out — which explains why our electricity bill is now more than 50 percent lower,” he says. “But we still use those post-it notes.”


Hubertus Breuer
Picture credits: von oben: 1. Bild Corbis, 3. f1online