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Smart consumption: technology to the rescue

The proven limits of individual efforts and the difficulty of managing collective dynamics make energy transition an extremely challenging task when approached through consumption. Fortunately, technologies can change the game: smart consumption is on the rise. But whose smartness is it: machines', electricity suppliers', or ours?

June 2015
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lire en français
Executive Resume

In terms of energy transition, consumer behavior is the key to a number of developments which, without radically changing the situation, are significant enough: transports or housing are energy-intensive activities that offer room for maneuver.

Ultimately, in a market economy capable of producing plenty of services and energy, consumption practices and choices should make a difference. But since an energy shortage is not for tomorrow, the natural price evolution alone will not reduce consumption. A combination of pricing and offers mixing incentives and constraints appear today as the safest way to change behaviors. But these methods also have their own limits. Energy suppliers cannot saw off the branch they are sitting on and governments, for their part, can only coerce or reward our choices up to a certain point.

Still, an amount of voluntarism is necessary. However, as we saw in “Is there such thing as citizen consumers,” individual good will isn’t enough. Activist groups, meanwhile, have imagination and their dynamics. But they also have their limits, especially regarding the right scale. Our previous article (“United we (could) stand”) ended by evoking participatory housing and eco-villages. “These microstructures are far from the critical mass that would allow optimal management of the flow of electricity, for example, a critical size that can be found today at the scale of a city of tens of thousands of inhabitants. But we move away from the citizen power in favor of technological solutions managed by professionals.”

What should we think of these solutions?

First of all, one must remark that they aren’t necessarily opposed to those developed by activist groups. They can certainly be implemented by specialized operators that take advantage of the meeting of special interests, but once we reason on a scale of 100, 1,000 or 10,000 households, the activist or commercial dimension has little impact technically.

Furthermore, it should be noted that at the present time, except in very specific conditions (geographical isolation), energy independence of a home or a community is a mere horizon. Experiments covered by the media are often possible because they rely on more traditional systems. The aim of the most successful ones is to address the weaknesses of the network, not to supplant the networks.

In France, Nice concentrate a large number of experiments around load-shedding and the integration of renewable energy such as Nice Grids, supported by EDF. Is the city dreaming of energy independence? Not at all: simply, it is connected to the French network by only one high-voltage power line, and during exceptional heatwaves or periods of cold (apartments are poorly insulated), consumption tends to exceed the limits of what the network can provide. In this context – by reasoning at the scale of the city and districts – load-shedding and the contribution of renewable energy (i.e. solar photovoltaics) take on a new meaning.

In short, the challenge isn’t to oppose a community (small and autonomous) to another (say, the national community), but to coordinate them. Similarly, despite the storytelling of Tesla, the dream of energy independence of individuals is still a fiction today. It can only become reality – and will make sense, ecologically – under specific conditions that are impossible to meet today – and probably for some time more.

These details allow us to understand the contribution and relevance of different technologies that are emerging today.

Let’s take the example of smart electricity meters and thermostats, where three models compete.

Nest or the conscious home

Founded in 2010 by former Apple engineers and recently acquired by Google, Nest has built its reputation on the smart thermostat launched in 2011 and generally associated to the brand’s name. It isn’t a simple connected, remote-controlled product like other home automation devices of the 1980s and 1990s, but a machine capable of learning, of locking onto your habits and optimizing the consumption without any notable effect on your comfort.

The thermostat learns your preferred temperatures, your usual schedules, and self-tunes after only a week of observation. Its system is equipped with sensors that react to heat, but also to presence, allowing it to run the heating (or conversely, of lowering it) to adapt to unexpected changes. It is connected to the outside world via an application that allows you to warn of your arrival but also to the information system of a weather station that allows it to adjust the temperature according to the expected weather.

The Nest group promises an average of 20% in energy savings, a significant figure that requires perhaps to be checked. Today, the device is still a geek gadget, but this type of object will most probably form part of our daily lives.

The only problem is the philosophy of the system. Nest aims first and above all at allowing money savings but it remains focused on you and your home. It doesn’t take into account, for example, peak demand, and does not integrate into load-shedding devices. Technically, that would be possible, but the philosophy of the group is that of an appliance manufacturer, not of a network operator.

However, a function of price sensitivity, in a context of significant price changes decided by the electricity supplier in the event of peak consumption, could reconcile the individual and the collective, by allowing each consumer to chose between his comfort, his bill... and the greater good.

One of the functions of Nest is to offer you a record of your consumption, accompanied by an "Energy Report" that allows you to understand and therefore to influence the structure of your consumption. This feature is at the heart of the Grid-Teams experience led at Cannes and has obtained in November 2011 – the same year Nest launched its thermostat on the US market – an award for Digital Green Growth.

The Grid-Teams project

As explained by researcher Alexandra Delanoë (Telecom ParisTech), this is an experiment that tested a real loyalty program to decrease energy with users in a natural situation. Controlling energy is associated with what is called innovation through use. Mobilizing the intelligence of consumers to incorporate it to some form of self-regulation through an access to their consumption history. Project partners have created a unique and comprehensive system based on smart grid technologies and platforms for online services. Their aim is to identify the relevant levers to sustainably encourage consumers to reduce their energy consumption, while preserving their freedom of choice, with the aim of lowering their electricity consumption between 5% and 15% and reducing the supply voltage during peak hours, between 18 pm and 21 pm.

The operation is performed through “smart meters”, monitoring instruments capable of measuring the consumption of a household and of communicating this information to the supplier or user. These instruments fall under the so-called category of reflexive technologies by providing the user with a relevant representation of his consumption, thus indirectly persuading him to regulate his demand by changing practices.

The assessment of the device’s performance was carried in a long-term perspective, over a period of 24 months.

What have we learned? As noted by Alexandra Delanoë, the mobilization of users as social actors is now one of the biggest challenges in the implementation of smart grids. Because once the time for experimentation or novelty has passed, users seem to lose interest in the device: the required efforts seem tiring or unsuccessful and technical problems hinder their ownership of the device.

Alexandra Delanoë and her colleagues reached the conclusion that the ergonomics of man-machine interfaces must be very carefully designed and that it is crucial to work on a presentation of relevant data for the users.

To sustain the motivation of users, researchers also suggest the possibility of a “socialization” of data, which is to share the user’s consumption curves with other users or relevant user groups (inhabitants of a district, a city, a region, a network of family relatives or friends) and will conversely enable users to access the curves of their peer group to make comparisons. One can also generate interest by using loyalty methods similar to those used by the airline companies.

Overall, the collective dimension of this approach has an interest and can probably become a lever for more effectiveness for the device. Similarly, respect towards the freedom of users is also worth mentioning. But given the results, one cannot help wondering whether we don’t expect too much of people: even with beautifully designed interfaces, even with a strong social control, through skillfully presented comparative charts, even with a system of rewards, standard human beings, with no specific economic problems, will probably not have much time or energy to devote... to monitoring their consumption.

Delegated management?

Under these circumstances, one can consider delegating this monitoring and part of the consumption management to network operators. Theoretically, this is probably the most rational solution: who better than the electricity supplier knows when demand must be evened and when, instead, it should be drawn from the network?

But as noted by François Moisan (ADEME), one must face the reluctance of users with what may appear as an intrusion into their private lives and their consumption choices. “This will not work”, he says, “if we cannot put into the balance benefits for consumers, such as lower electricity bills.”

There are also elements of risk and comfort: delegating the launch of the washing machine, or allowing the interruption of the freezer for 10 minutes is, beyond any doubt, optimal in terms of electricity demand management, but it can also lead to accidents. Load-shedding techniques developed in the industrial world are not necessarily transferable to our homes – or at least, not yet.


In any case, we can catch a glimpse of the different components of this new model: automation, consumer control, intervention of the network manager. All of these interacting ingredients will allow us, ultimately, to keep the upper hand, while we connect with other users to collectively optimize our consumption.

In this sector, playing collectively makes more sense than acting completely isolated from the others – Tesla’s off-grid dream or Nest’s modest consumption savings.

But playing as a team only has meaning and effect when technology comes to the rescue of social dynamics and allows it to grow and find their rhythm instead of fading out.