What Will It Take To Change Consumer Energy Behavior?

Danielle Beurteaux

The concepts of resource optimization are often framed as large-scale problems and big picture solutions—the drought in California, rising sea levels, extreme Electrician controlling electric meters --- Image by © Tetra Images/Corbisweather.

One of the promises of the Internet of Things is that we’ll live in connected environments that will enable a high level of control and insight into how we consume resources. For environmental insights on a micro, daily level, the IoT home could compel a significant change consumers’ consumption behavior.

Google’s acquisition of Nest last year for more than $3 billion showed, among other things, that the concept of a smart home—and one that “learns” behavior as well—is going to big business.

But consumers are more interested in using IoT capabilities for home security than for home energy consumption.

So what’s it going to take to move the energy needle into green?

Consumers first vs. utilities first

Consumers might not have energy consumption on the mind—until they receive their monthly utility bill—but plenty of companies are promising real-time tracking of home energy, along with the ability to conserve usage, and therefore money.

Products like Neurio connect directly in a breaker box and then send energy usage info to an Android or iOS smartphone (you need to set it up on the web first, though). There are other similar products, like the crowdfunded Ecoisme and Belkin’s WeMo, which also include water usage tracking, and Curb. These are consumer products and work pretty much the same way. There’s also Aquanta, a meter specifically for hot water consumption, and Smappee, which promises tracking by appliance, not just whole-house or apartment usage.

The takeaway: What we have right now is a very fragmented market. Not every homeowner wants to set up 5 devices, the devices aren’t always simple to install, and they don’t always work as promised.

On the other hand, recent entrant Powerly is marketed to utility companies as a “home energy management platform,” which has a couple of interesting angles. One is that it could be used as good branding for utilities and the other is the potential for mass rollouts. Instead of consumers picking and choosing a device themselves, a Powerly device could reach a large user base very quickly, particularly of people who aren’t necessarily aware that such devices exist and/or wouldn’t otherwise think about installing something themselves. So smart energy usage might be hastened by utility companies more than consumers. With the federal mandate that charges utilities with finding ways to become more efficient, expect to see more devices like Powerly’s.

Single-platform power

Of course, Powerly isn’t the only company operating in this space. But the real change in consumer behavior will be when one company comes up with a single product that connects everything using the same platform, instead of the piecemeal approach we’ve got right now.

For consumers, this will be about convenience and ease of use. But the company or companies that dominate this service—which is what Google seems to be heading toward with Nest—will be the big winners, with access to a constant stream of information about how people use resources. Comcast, with its Xfinity platform, is aiming to be another of those companies. This has also brought about concerns regarding the potential use of this information, beyond the worries about IoT security (remember, the Target hack happened with the HVAC vendor’s stolen security credentials).

To get a sense of what living in a single-platform integrated smart home would be like, the occupants of the Honda Smart Home prototype near UCDavis just clocked in 9 months as renters, and liked it so much they asked for a year extension.

Want more on how today’s technology is shaping tomorrow’s consumers? See 3 Ways The Networked Economy Is Changing Your Life [VIDEO].

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.