Understanding complexities for household energy management: lessons from a smart grid pilot project

Smart grid tools increase opportunities to reduce or shift residential electricity consumption, but can they shape residential energy culture? And what underlying factors influence this shift? A recent attempt at answering these questions is the focus of a study published in Energy, Sustainability and Society, by members of the Energy Policy Research Group and the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Recent progress in smart grid infrastructure and technologies (e.g., smart meters, smart thermostats and appliances) brings potential for existing electricity grids and their consumers. These technologies facilitate flows beyond energy to incorporate two-way flows of information and services between utilities and consumers. This presents opportunities for consumers to hold active roles in the electricity system through increased capabilities of feedback, energy storage, renewables integration, and energy management by smart appliances and optimization, among others.

Studies have identified the importance of user experience, feedback and integration of multiple engagement mechanisms when assessing consumer involvement within the smart grid.

However, careful attention needs to be paid to the engagement of consumers for the proper and efficient use of these technologies for household energy management. Studies have identified the importance of user experience, feedback and integration of multiple engagement mechanisms when assessing consumer involvement within the smart grid.

Residential consumers are an important part of this picture. Within Canada, the residential sector accounts for 17% of secondary energy use. However, household energy consumption can differ by 200% between similar units – highlighting the complexity as well as the significance of consumers’ energy actions on differences in consumption patterns.

Ontario has established smart metering infrastructure through the widespread rollout of smart meters through the Smart Metering Initiative, the largest deployment of advanced metering infrastructure within Canadian provinces. As we look towards engaging consumers with smart metering data to improve energy management, utilizing holistic frameworks allows for detailed understanding to be gained about these complexities.

The smart grid pilot project

Our study utilized interview feedback following a multi-year suburban smart grid pilot project in Ontario, Canada in order to: 1) assess the changes in energy management over the duration of the 3-year project and to 2) assess the underlying factors influencing household energy management and engagement. This pilot project installed circuit-reading technologies (i.e., smart panel and/or smart plugs) to provide circuit or major appliance level feedback. Additionally, several project interactions were introduced: goal setting, web portal, reminder emails, webinar, air conditioning control, and a weekly electricity report.

Detailed understandings were gained from interviewing 15 participants involved in this long-term study framed around Stephenson et al.’s Energy Cultures framework. This scalable framework organizes energy behaviors influenced by social, technical, and contextual factors, including: material culture (e.g., technologies and the built environment), norms and aspirations (e.g., attitudes, awareness and personal standards), and the practices and skills (e.g., actions and use of technology) influencing energy consumption.

Outcomes highlight the challenge of engaging consumers for more ‘sustainable’ energy management – certain personal standards and lack of knowledge restrict substantial and long-lasting changes.

When assessing the feedback from the households in this study, it is clear that complex barriers and motivations strongly influenced these households’ changes in energy culture. Households in this study strongly accepted smart grid technologies for energy management. While increased awareness was obtained, participants needed additional guidance for substantial changes. In particular, households had difficulties setting and knowing how to achieve their energy goals.

Technological improvements were limited to small device replacement and influenced by the existing profile of the households, newer homes with relatively efficient appliances and building envelope. However, some participants went beyond the call to action and installed their own smart home technologies and solar energy generation independent from the program.

Interviewees highlighted changes in energy management practices, where self-reported actions increased as a result of access to granular energy consumption feedback to see areas of ‘waste’ and opportunities for ‘improvement.’ Although participants were financially motivated to increase their energy efficiency, norms of lifestyle and convenience, as well as competing energy management values within households, were the largest barriers to home energy management.

Towards a sustainable residential energy culture

Outcomes from this study highlight the challenge of engaging consumers for more ‘sustainable’ energy management within the smart grid. Although residential consumers, in this study’s context, were willing to accept these technologies, certain personal standards and lack of knowledge restricted substantial and long-lasting changes. Opportunities exist for developing and testing engagement strategies addressing these challenges, particularly in this developing age of smart home technologies.

This is the first study to apply the Energy Cultures framework to the smart grid within Canada, providing opportunities to gain detailed information from pilot project participants and to identify the impacts of their long-term involvement in a smart grid project on their energy culture. Additionally, this gives a stepping-stone for future research applying this framework to larger cohorts within Canadian residential smart grid programs.

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