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Bill Melendez

Are Consumers Ready for a Social Network in Home Energy Management (HEM)?

Keeping consumers informed may address some of the issues relating to utility smart meter rollout but doesn’t really deal with, as so aptly stated in Kate Rowland’s article “Are consumers ready for the smart grid?” (Intelligent Utility, December 28, 2009), the psychological factors. We still wrestle with understanding consumer motivation and want. We don’t really know how consumers will react to more intrusion by smart meters into their lives (if it is an intrusion or a mere nuisance) and what they will embrace in terms of technology. Maybe the lessons learned in WiFi will be an indicator. WiFi took quite a long time in becoming common within homes. As the internet grew in importance so did the need for technology to facilitate its use.

Being untethered has become norm in our society due to the consumer need to connect while busy doing other things. That is a social behavior that runs common in this society. Translating these type behaviors or habits into a DR/DSM program is difficult because no one has identifies which behaviors are a paradigm shift to the technology need. The strategy industry is using completely reverses this approach. Industry believes that technology will cause a paradigm shift in the way consumers use energy. Hence the smart meter, the smart appliances, the smart grid, and so on. While these technological implementations do make behavior changes, the impact of these changes is more visible within the utility industry and not as much in the consumer world. Bridging the gap between these two worlds is challenging but not daunting.

Energy cconsumers would like systems that integrate their energy use with their social lifestyles. After all, we do “twit” our lives openly to all to see. A social networked HAN would get more results that using any utility program in DR/DSM. Only by combining the energy habits of home residents with the social and competitive conscience of what a community is doing will users really focus on what’s right and what’s best for the community in energy consumption. Not only do utilities have a responsibility to inform its consumers, but the community also has an obligation to encourage and interact within itself and its members.

With that in mind, it would be nice if my home network bought the lowest cost electricity for me based on preset parameters that I chose. Then I wouldn’t need to constantly track pricing on the spot market or worry about TOU (and all those utility terms that get tossed out to the public) to get the best deal. I would prefer to place it on autopilot and let the HAN place limitations on my appliances based on electricity bought. Yes the HAN will need to keep me and family members in the loop – we don’t like surprises.

Taking this further, what if the home network also linked with the neighbors and collectively implemented solutions that benefited the entire community being served by the utility? A paradigm shift in social behavior is possible but only when that community is ready for it, desires it, and has tools that simplify its implementation. Providing tools in and of itself only prematurely sours the social interaction with technology. It clouds the real issue of the need for change in energy use and leads to technological and financial abyss.

Current trends indicate a move towards a more ecologically responsible society. How this translates into behavior change is anyone’s guess. Let’s face it, the world is shrinking and getting competitively crowded in all areas that impact resources and its use. The shift in lifestyles has only just begun. How we, as a society, respond now in implementing energy solutions will have profound affects on community behavior in the future. Since the problems are larger than the technology deployed or being considered; it becomes paramount that utilities, industry and consumers engage the issues openly and transparently. The industry will need to embrace a more social conscious approach to energy reduction and management by inclusion verses exclusion of the people they are committed to serve.

A social network provides opportunities for social change in attitudes and behavior but only if its implementation incorporates the minds and hearts of its community. In an isolated gadget society such as ours accomplishing this is difficult but not improbable. Moving energy users, and collectively the community, towards a socially responsible mindset requires instilling a sense of community purpose and destiny that only comes through interaction. And while technology tend to guide individuals towards “gadget isolationism”, society as a whole desires more social interaction – not less. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other such social networks have more then demonstrated this trend. Capturing the “spirit of social networking” can only enhance the use of smart meters and smart HAN deployment — but only if such solutions are part of the public strategy.

The smart grid may be the panacea for energy woes – or we would like to think it is, but it is futile and dangerous if the society it intends to serve is left behind in the frenzy to feed on the benefits sought.

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