Heat waves and cold spells are a misery for the electric grid, and for anyone worried about energy costs. We can’t change the weather, but we can change how we respond. A little counter top device, keyed to the workings of the human brain, could show the way.
The Energy Joule, a product by Ambient Devices, is one of many different tools now on the market to influence how consumers use energy. This one works by tapping into how we unconsciously perceive our environment.
Surrounded by sights and sounds, we pluck out what’s important using our ‘pre-attentive processing’ abilities. It’s how we sort through noise in a room to recognize someone saying our name, or how we know we need a jacket by honing in on the feel of the air.
The Energy Joule, and its sister product the Energy Orb, play to this mental filter by glowing different colors to show changes in energy costs. A homeowner spots the red glow and knows instantly that electricity prices are high and it’s time to conserve.
Based in Cambridge, Mass., Ambient Devices recently saw its home town experience the kind of power grid woes that create a market for its devices. In July, temperatures soared in New England, businesses and households cranked up the air conditioners, electric supplies tightened and energy costs spiked. ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, sent out a plea through the media for energy conservation.
Pritesh Gandhi, CEO and founder of Ambient Devices, couldn’t help but think ‘if only.’
“A tool like ours, the Joule or the Energy Orb, would really drive the message home,” Gandhi said in a recent interview.
When customers see the Energy Joule glowing red, they know it’s best to wait until later to run appliances and avert further strain on the grid. Or they might adjust thermostat settings. If it is yellow, electricity prices are still above average. Green says average or below average prices, so it’s a good time to, say, run the dishwasher.
The device is so simple to understand, Gandhi says, that his six-year-old can use it. The Energy Joule also has a digital display for those who want more detail, such as current energy rates, home energy use trends and local weather forecasts.
The gadget is getting the chance to prove its worth in Ontario. Hydro One, a utility that serves about 1.4 million customers in the province, has selected the ZigBee-enabled Energy Joule for a pilot project to translate smart meter data for energy users. Ontario is ready to undertake the test because it has installed smart meters at almost all homes and businesses. (See “Looking for Smart Grid Funding? Consider Ontario.”)
Pilot particiants will get information from the Energy Joule in “one quick glance,” said George Katsuras, manager of business integration for Hydro One. “Our customers will be able to take the information displayed on the device and make instant decisions on how to shift or reduce their energy usage.”
Ambient says its products reduce energy use by about 25 percent. While the Energy Joule is relatively new, the simpler and older Energy Orb has been used in pilots by Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and Baltimore Gas and Electric.
It is not easy getting households to pay attention to energy. A lot of companies are looking for the magic formula or technology. Ambient Devices has focused on producing an object with a pleasing design, much as Steve Jobs emphasized charm for the iPhone. Gandhi wanted consumers to feel comfortable about placing the object in a high traffic area of the home.
“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how this device will live in the environment. One of the reasons we think the Joule will be successful is because the design is very chameleon-like. It fits into a contemporary home with modern furniture or a home from the 1970s with avocado appliances,” Gandhi said.
Gandhi calls the Joule a “democratic product” meaning anyone in the home would find it useful. As such, it is more likely to pass what he calls “the big blue bin” test. His family throws electronic gadgets that lose their appeal into a plastic bin. The longer a device avoids the bin, the greater its chance of success in the market.
“There are very few devices that survive the blue bin in our home. It is now overflowing,” Gandhi said.
Fortunately, the Joule and Orb are avoiding such treatment, not just in his home but elsewhere, he said. Customers who participated in pilots have asked to keep Ambient Devices afterward. They became “something of a conversation piece, a design object, something that people wanted to keep in the environment,” he said.
As Gandhi sees it, the Joule could solve ‘the final mile’ problem of smart grid. Utilities have incorporated smart meters and other technology into the grid that provide a lot of useful information. Now what? The final step is to find a way to bring the information to consumers and get them to act upon it. Maybe a little color and charm will do the trick.