Example #2 – Real Time Energy Displays

Energy consumption in the home is invisible, which becomes a social problem when it accounts for 27% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. Part of the problem is that it takes a certain type of person to find beauty in a traditional electricity meter, and they are usually hidden away; installed inside cupboards or above eye level and never looked at.

Enter a broad range of persuasive products; some simple, some sleek, some designer and some made by the so-called iPod of Cleantech, that all try to reduce consumption by making energy visible. The majority of these products rely on a current sensor that clips around the main electricity inlet to a house (although this press release suggests that some may be more sophisticated) and wirelessly transmits the energy data to a portable and hopefully beautiful object that sits on your coffee table and constantly displays it.

How do these real time energy displays (as they have become known) attempt to persuade people to reduce energy consumption? All of them employ self-monitoring (in a similar way to Nike+iPod) to help people become more attuned to how much each of their appliances are consuming and are enabled to make intelligent decisions. Mention of “reward points” suggests some of them employ aspects of tunnelling, like an energy coach might. The more advanced real time energy displays have also seen the potential of the internet, and use (or are planning to use) social networking to create communities around energy consumption, adding surveillance to the list of persuasive techniques. Lastly, real time energy displays function as simulated cause and effect scenarios, allowing people to turn on and off appliances, and see from the display how much CO2 would be emitted each year if they continued to consume energy at such a rate (it is a personal disappointment that none of them are yet hooked up to a climate change model that shows how this would correspond to sea level rise or ecosystem shift… if anyone knows of a climate change model with an API – do let me know).

Real time energy displays are one of the highest profile of products that could be considered persuasive technology, after they had a brief brush with environmental policy in the government’s draft energy bill of 2007, which required energy suppliers to provide such displays to those customers that requested them (as a precursor to a roll-out of smart meters, which are a slightly different kettle of fish). The government engaged suppliers, consumers and OFGEM in consultation and carried out a cost benefit analysis and impact assessment which concluded that given the evidence for such products, the policy would not be cost effective. The requirement was dropped from the bill, illustrating the requirement for robust and quantitative evidence for the effectiveness of such persuasive technology, and also the difficulty of comparing the effectiveness of different displays when effectiveness hangs on the interaction design (and the persuasive power).

So what evidence is there? Studies are thin on the ground and spread over many years (dating back to the oil crisis of the 70s) when interaction design was less advanced, but the most credible review of the literature suggests savings of 5-15% can be obtained by giving people direct feedback of energy consumption. Further tests of real time displays are currently under way (some in conjunction with smart-meter trials) in 8,500 households in the UK and more across the world. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the savings may be even higher; approaching 40%.

However the real time energy display story ends, they may prove to be a landmark case for persuasive technology and behaviour change.

By the way, in addition to making energy visible via real time energy displays, there are also an abundance of conceptual products from the Interactive Institute that are well worth a look.

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6 Responses to “Example #2 – Real Time Energy Displays”


  1. 1 William December 14, 2008 at 9:55 am

    I think these devices might be being thought of in the wrong way. A friend who has bought the Wattson says that it was most effective in the first few days, when the kids ran around the house turning things on and off and “playing” with the reading, learning what was consuming energy and discovering how much their phone chargers used. Once they’d learned those lessons they tended to look at the read-out much less. If it only takes a few days to test your useage and learn from it, what would happen if your local video rental store offered week long hire of these devices? Or better, your electricity company offered them for free for a week only?

  2. 2 rsadesignbehaviour December 14, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    You could well be right – I heard a similar story from a researcher in the field; that her family used a display for a few weeks or so, but soon found they’d got all they could out of it. I think it’s hard to say for sure though, given the sparse number of studies that measure the effect these things have.

    I guess the value of keeping it for longer may be that it lets you monitor changes in your lifestyle over a long period. It might be nice to have it around when you make a change in your appliances (like a new fridge), or if you start micro-generating your own energy.

    I think the manufacturers of these things see them becoming part of your life – becoming as common in living rooms as a telly (all they have to do is to make energy consumption as compelling as Strictly Come Dancing)…


  1. 1 Design, Behaviour & Policy: Part II « Design & Behaviour Trackback on January 14, 2009 at 5:38 pm
  2. 2 From the RSA to the RCA « Design & Behaviour Trackback on February 5, 2009 at 8:01 pm
  3. 3 High Tech: Low Carbon Week « Design & Behaviour Trackback on February 11, 2009 at 12:57 pm
  4. 4 sustain » Blog Archive » Real-Time Energy Displays: The Lifecycle of Usefulness Trackback on March 23, 2009 at 6:22 pm

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