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Power to the people

Date
14 December 2010
Power to the people

By Tashweka Anderson
Global low-carbon ICT Project Manager, The Climate Group
Op-ed, Guardian Sustainable Business

Companies should make carbon-efficient products and let people control and manage them

In November I spoke at the ICT for Sustainable Homes conference in Nice, France. The conference brought together companies, research laboratories and other organisations involved in ICT-based products and services for the home. It also provided an opportunity to see the latest innovations and understand the challenges and barriers they face in the marketplace. The themes explored included innovation and empowering consumers to play a role in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In July, The Climate Group and Google hosted Empowering UK Energy Consumers: A consumer-led vision for energy innovation. Participants cited consumer engagement and developing demand as the most challenging barrier to innovation in ICT for sustainable homes. They agreed that engaging consumers in smart grid and metering is a key element of successful projects and that achieving sustainability, energy and climate objectives will require their full participation. In other words, smart homes need smart people.

But why is customer engagement proving so difficult? The main challenges are about how, how much and who.

How: accessing energy management information

A recent piece of Accenture research suggests that while most consumers would prefer to receive energy information and advice from their utility provider, they are more likely to trust environmental, academic and consumer associations. Consumers are more likely to distrust information and advice from utilities, government, retail manufacturers and home service providers. Clearly, enabling consumers to access energy information and advice through a number of different channels will be crucial to acceptance and adoption of energy management programmes.

How much: automation v control

There is a debate in the industry about how much control residents should have in managing their utility consumption. Many ICT providers prefer automation, which would, for example, allow an IP-enabled and networked 'smart' washing machine to monitor utility price information and automatically activate internal actions to shed power for short, critical periods of time, all with little or no user input. This could mean that your washing machine would stop your cycle when energy prices are high and restart the wash cycle when prices are low.

But the research suggests a consumer preference for greater control. "No matter the impact, consumers are more likely to sign up (for energy management programmes) if they retain some control over their home appliances. Also… they are more likely to respond to the incentive of saving money." When it comes to automation and control, one size will not fit all, so more must be done to better understand the most appropriate mix of automation v control for different types of consumers.

Who: consumer preferences

ICT providers and utilities, with few notable exceptions, understand little about their customers and how to stimulate demand for home energy management products and services. These often focus on price (the cost of energy and the savings that could be had, or environmental concerns). Yet, according to the research, consumers' readiness to enroll in electricity management programmes is determined by preferences that go well beyond the criteria traditionally applied to energy purchasing decisions.

To achieve the vision of smart homes, we will need to empower and enable consumers using a combination of ICT and non-ICT products and services.

At the ICT for Sustainable Homes conference, I was pleased to meet both large and small companies who are already seizing this opportunity to create innovative consumer-centric tools and services for the home. It is an exciting space and one that the Climate Group will continue to focus on in 2011.

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