Dan Wright | Loughborough, UK
The planned rollout of smart meters to every home in the UK means that most occupants should have access to near real-time cost and consumption information about electricity or gas consuming activities. In this article, we take a look at ways that energy information can be communicated and the research behind what constitutes useful information.
We can now heat spaces on demand through using central heating systems, a very different situation from 60 years ago when coal fireplaces were a much more common means of heating homes. In most cases, when we use energy in our homes, it is hard to quantify how much we are using and how much it is costing.
Monthly or quarterly bills from energy suppliers can provide occupants with information of how much they've spent, the environmental impact of their actions (often in terms of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions), and the energy units they have used (e.g. normally in kilowatt-hours). This type of information is termed feedback, because it indicates what has already occurred. There is research showing that providing feedback can help people to make energy savings. For example, research by Wilhite and Ling (1995) found that adding extra information on energy bills resulted in energy savings of approximately 10% amongst their participants in Oslo, Norway. As more and more homes have smart meters installed, these are coupled with dedicated in-home display monitors or smart phone applications, which can provide up-to-the-minute information which could be much more useful than multi-month summaries.
The information from smart meters can help us to find out what our baseline electricity use is. In other words, how much electricity our essential appliances, such a fridge that is on all the time, use. This information may also indicate whether it could be worthwhile to replace an old, energy-inefficient freezer. The same goes for analysing the electricity demand of items that sit on standby, such as TVs. These ‘vampire’ appliances may continue to consume electricity despite not providing any functionality while doing so. Regulations from the European Commission  limit standby electricity demand, but these such appliances could account for as much as 15% of domestic electricity use .
Feedback can give us an evidence-base to take action to reduce our energy bills and reduce our environmental impact, but modern technology allows for much more innovative and intuitive ways of communicating information use. For example, predicting our future energy use based on our past behaviours.
The term feedforward was coined in 1976 and describes predictive information presented through in-home energy displays which may be an important factor in energy conservation . This form of data could give occupants information about:
The future energy savings that could be achieved by buying a more energy efficient appliance.
It could highlight the potential future benefits of installing a photovoltaic (PV) solar panel system
It could the savings garnered from changing behaviours such as reducing the thermostat set point from 19℃ to 18℃ .
Research into metering systems compared the effect of predictive, historical and instruction in-home energy displays, found that occupants who had access to predictive data performed better in a home energy save simulation . Why might this be?
Insights from health psychology can offer us some clues as to the potential benefits of feedforward for energy use behaviours. Hall and Fong’s temporal self-regulation theory  proposes that individuals balance potential present and future actions in terms of benefits and detriments. Often, individuals choose actions that may be rewarding in the present, even if the future detriments are considerable. For example, when considering what to eat, a person may choose fast food for the immediate benefits (e.g. low cost and low waiting time). While the individual may be aware of the negative future and long-term effect that eating fast food may have (e.g. digestive problems and obesity ), perceived short-term benefits are often seen as outweighing the future detriments, and thus behaviours continue to occur.
Similarly, an energy user may keep all of the lights on in their house and heat their home so that they can wear shorts and a t-shirt in winter. This behaviour could seem to have no immediate negative effects, until the bill comes at the end of the month or quarter. One of the recommendations made by Hall and Fong was that interventions that enhance the connections between present behaviour and later outcomes could have long lasting effects. With this theory as a foundation, perhaps providing feedforward information may make future benefits of decreasing energy expenditure more evident, and therefore more appealing.
Whereas feedback offers users a chance to reflect upon their previous energy use behaviours, feedforward affords users an insight into the energy use impact that their behaviours may have, and gives occupants the opportunity to modify their behaviours accordingly. The advantages of reliable feedforward are not solely tied to consumers. Accurate modelling of consumer use trends can be used by energy suppliers to foresee potential fluctuations in energy demand and adapt energy generation.
Innovating for tomorrow
Feedback and feedforward are not the only ways to contextualise communicated energy use. New innovations in the field of communication and the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) could open the possibilities for alternatives!
Wearable technologies: If we are not present in a room, is there any reason to keep it illuminated? Wearable technologies within a home IoT ecosystem could track movement between rooms to make sure lights are only on when we need them. Additionally, sensors on wearable technology could facilitate the use of directional, localised, personal heating in rooms, heating the individual rather than the space the individual inhabits. Wearable technologies could therefore become part of the home IoT ecosystem, with buildings able to respond to occupant requirements.
Social energy: It’s possible that feedback that includes an indication of what others are doing may be more valuable and informative than standalone information for just one home. A desire to conform to a group with which an individual identifies  has been shown to be one of the key influencers in pro-environmental behaviours . If our neighbours are using less energy than us, could this motivate us to try and decrease our use? Equally, if our neighbours are using more than us, could this influence us to start being less careful about our energy use?
For many households, conforming to the norms of a group may not be so appealing. Instead, the gamification of energy use could pit individual households or streets against one another to see who can reduce their energy use the most. This type of engagement with energy information has been trialed in various studies (such as through the Kukui Cup Project) and research is continuing to explore the benefits and potential unforeseen consequences of using energy use data in the form of a serious game .
Within the context of a criticised information deficit explanation for energy use , communicating information through feedback and feedforward is essential. The potential of in-home display monitors to be the only means of accessing this information seems limited, with more promise by presenting information in an accessible format through a smartphone application where data can be contextualised and integrated with other data.
Regardless of the vehicle of communication, presenting occupants with their energy use may be pointless if not given within a valued context. What is perceived as valuable may differ from household to household. Some households may be most motivated by comparing their energy use to that of structurally-similar dwellings, while others might be most engaged to compete to save more energy with households who support a rival football team.
In my opinion, information overload is on the horizon. Tools are being developed to inform us about details of every aspect of our lives (how many steps we are taking, how long we spend standing up, etc.). It is likely that we will each develop a value hierarchy for this information, with some aspects requiring our attention more than others. Will we have the cognitive space to take actions based on our current or predicted energy use information? Could energy grow in value to a point where we discuss it regularly?
Dan Wright is a doctoral researcher with the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering at Loughborough University funded by the EPSRC London-Loughborough (LoLo) Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Demand (Grant No. EP/L01517X/1) and supported by Simble Solutions Limited, an innovative, Australia-based SaaS specialist.
 As of 2013, the European Commission specifies that electrical equipment in standby mode should not consume more than 1Watt (National Measurement Office, 2012)
 Combe (2012)
 See the report by Cambridge Architectural Research (2012) for more on the potential energy saving of reducing the thermostat temperature by 1℃.
 Bamberg & Mӧser (2007)
 For more information on serious games, see Susi, Johannesson and Backlund (2007)