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New energy products are teaching consumers how to take control of their power.
How different our cities and towns must have been before the electric streetlight. Gas lamps—and before that torches—had to be lit and re-lit on a nightly basis. This first “grid” was laborious, slow, and disconnected. Electricity changed all that. The enormous industrial effort that put in place an infrastructure capable of moving electrons, with their instant, always-on quality, gave us a mighty kick from the 19th to the 20th century.
This century is bringing change, too. It’s coming not from the power companies, but from you—the energy consumer. If the first generation of electricity was all about industrial power, then ours will be about consumer power. And if consumer demand grows big enough and fast enough, then it has the potential to pull utilities, regulators, and corporations along with it.
This next wave isn’t on the horizon. It’s here now. Consumers have a wealth of energy products available on the market. They have names like Nucleus, Leaf, and Volt. They come from companies like Tendril, Blink, and Xanboo. Just by owning these products, you will, over the course of your life, reduce your energy consumption enough to save a lot of cash and improve your outlook on the future. Their wide adoption (like electric lights before them) is virtually certain, as money and security provide the necessary motivation to ignite real and widespread change.
So why is it taking so long?
It’s more a question of behavior than of technology. All new products, and the technologies they’re based on, come with a learning curve. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be new. In some cases, like when the group of end users is small, the learning curve is steep (think airplane cockpits). But if we want to engender a global mainstream culture of efficient and sustainable energy use, then it’s up to designers—in collaboration with inventors, entrepreneurs, and energy experts—to flatten the learning curves. By focusing on how a user actually behaves, and making products that are attractive enough to purchase, simple enough to use, and easy enough to keep using, we can put more choices—and more power—into consumers’ hands.
A good example of this behavior change is the adoption of electric vehicles. Replacing one combustion engine for an electric motor doesn’t change our perception of a car. But what’s under the hood is having a dramatic impact on our behavior. The Nissan Leaf, for example, the first mass-produced electric vehicle in the United States, introduces an interesting challenge—how to “refuel.” Charging stations, standardized now to work with any EV, do exist in markets where the Leaf is sold, but are not widespread enough to provide a worry-free driving experience. This “range anxiety” (the fear of being stranded with a dead battery with no place to recharge) is one of the biggest perceived barriers to EV adoption. Of course, with almost 100 miles on a full charge, the Leaf should work well for the 85 percent of us who drive between home, work, and the “third place” (mall, café, library). But on longer trips, drivers will need to seek out-of-the-way charging stations—something they aren’t used to doing.
Better Place, another company in the EV market, is rolling out a network of battery-switching stations (where it will take two minutes to “refuel”). But that approach is in its first phase and doesn’t address the problem of station density. So to help drivers adapt, designers have softened the learning curve by creating dashboard interfaces that direct a driver to nearby locations for charging, changing the route he or she takes but not the final destination. Designers are also adding cues for energy-efficient driving (i.e., heated seats, which are more efficient than whole-car heating), subscription services for charging your car wherever you go (like a mobile-phone roaming plan), and helping create offerings from retailers to lure consumers to EV parking spots (free coffee while you charge).
These behavior-based design techniques, and others like them, should be enough to conquer our anxiety and boost adoption. If they aren’t, then a series of EV-gas hybrids like the Chevy Volt will smooth the transition until our behaviors (and infrastructure) catch up to the security and savings of an EV economy. And while currently there is no such thing as an electric SUV, you can be sure that successful adoption of the compact EV, like the hybrid before it, will get manufacturers placing these new batteries in all manner of cars.
If the first generation of electricity was all about industrial power, then ours will be about consumer power.
Energy products for the home that provide control over heating, cooling, and lighting also demand behavioral challenges. The very fact that the energy meter is outside, not inside the house tells you everything about how the old system was designed for the guy with the clipboard checking it—not for the consumer. But companies like Intel and GE want to bring the meter inside, and they want to make it smart, meaning they want to connect appliances to thermostats, plugs, and sensors (and even EVs) to create a connected “smart home.” This new category of energy product, called a home-energy manager, will be a computer for the home (not just in the home). And like all new product categories (iPods, Wiis, etc.), it is going to take time for consumers to see how these products fit their needs. In the meantime, even services that only raise consumer awareness can lead to change. OPOWER, which measures a home’s energy usage in comparison with others in the community and reports that data on the customer’s utility bill, thus fostering competition, has found that the savings of those using its service are twice that of replacing your lightbulbs.
It’s clear that in order to create a sustainable energy future we must change our behavior; charting the same course and speed from here isn’t possible. New products are providing the tools to enable consumers to make the shift. Now it’s up to us to power the real change.
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