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Study to find what makes people power down

Illustration: Nils-Petter Ekwall
Illustration: Nils-Petter Ekwall

A new demand response pilot program in Melbourne aims to answer one of the big questions about energy – what motivates people to reduce consumption?

The Power Changers pilot has been launched by energy distributor Jemena, in partnership with the Victorian government, energy software developers Billcap and app developers GreenBe.

Residents in Alphington, Craigieburn, Eaglemont, East Ivanhoe, Fairfield and Ivanhoe are being invited to participate in the program, which will reward participants for reducing energy use over summer. Rewards will be in the form of contributions to local schools and community groups for points consumers earn from powering down.

To avoid potential harm to customers that may be vulnerable during extreme heat, all participants are being pre-screened for their health or other factors that might make participating risky.

The trial will utilise smart meter information, with both energy users and the companies involved able to track energy use. Jemena has self-funded the rewards and incentives for the initiative, which will operate until March 2018, with potential for future extension and broader roll-out.

The Power Changers program notifies households when the grid is under pressure.,

“By making small changes to how they use electricity, households can make a big impact on the grid, Jemena executive general manager customer and markets Shaun Reardon said.

“The pilot program uses innovative technology and smart meter data to set targets and provide feedback to households during peak times, enabling our customers to make informed choices about how and when to shift their consumption.”

The retailer will be sharing insights generated with the Victorian government to inform future energy policy. It will also utilise the insights as part of its own research into customer behaviour and the benefits of smart meters.

More than demand response

Billcap founder and chief executive Yann Burden told The Fifth Estate the project had a deeper mission that simply being about behavioural demand response.

“The open question for us as energy behaviour experts is no one really knows what motivates end-energy use consumers,” he said.

He said that, historically, behavioural demand response had been run as a pilot program, where an incentive is offered, but they failed at being “replicable at scale”.

Part of the reason is the Hawthorne Effect, where people change their behaviour because they are aware of being studied.

So as part of Power Changers, the team will be trying different incentives and messages with different user groups with the aim of finding out which types of people respond to particular messages and incentives.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Market Design and Behaviourworks are also involved is this part of the project to ensure the trial is conducted in a “rigorous and randomised way”.

“Then we can say, ‘These things work for these groups’, and make sure the program is scalable and viable,” Mr Burden said.

“So it won’t be just a one-off but hopefully can be rolled out at scale.”

He said the energy industry did “a lot of pilots”.

The tech side of the industry also spends a lot of focus on looking at the “latest app and pixels on a screen”.

“We have to be humble in the energy space. We assume people will adopt a thing because we think it is good.”

Participants will be offered information about what drives their energy use and what can be done to reduce it.

As part of the trial, baselines will be developed using the smart meter data for each household. Each week participants will receive a snapshot of their energy use performance.

The Billcap software produces real-time energy use data at 30 minute intervals, so households will also be informed of variances against the baseline.

“We will look for the outliers in any week of consumption,” Mr Burden said.

He said while the analysis won’t show what exactly caused outliers, if a customer knows it was a really hot day then they can probably work out it was the air conditioning, for example.

Likewise, if there is a spike in overnight use, the customer may want to check what appliances were being used.

They will also receive information about what drives their energy use, and tips on how to reduce it.

“These are things that are probably not taught in school, and are not necessarily intuitive,” Mr Burden said.

The approach will be to “start simple”.

“There is a danger, being energy geeks, that we give too much data,” he said.

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