IBM explores the social, cultural aspects of energy management

Approximately 1,000 Iowa households with smart meters will participate in a project that will give the energy information in almost-real-time.

Approximately 1,000 volunteer households in Dubuque, Iowa, are at the center of a six-month test of energy consumption habits that will end in November 2011.

IBM, the city of Dubuque, Alliant Energy – Interstate Power and Light, and the Iowa Office of Energy Independence are running the project. The aim is to gauge how deep consumer awareness of real-time power usage patterns might affect conservation, said Michael Valocchi, Vice President, Global Energy & Utilities Industry Leader for IBM Global Business Services. Dubuque was picked because there is a favorable climate there for projects of this nature, he said.

“The study is focused on what is necessary to help the consumer do things differently,” Valocchi said. “The surprising thing to me is how much people will change just by getting information.”

In the Iowa project, households will be able to monitor usage information in close-to-real-time -- roughly every 15 minutes, he said. The test households will access the information via what IBM calls the Smarter Energy Cloud, a portal that translates oodles of data being collected by the households’ smart meters into information that is supposed to be easier to understand.

That distinction is key, since an energy consumption patterns survey (the “2011 IBM Global Utility Consumer Survey”) released by IBM last week that suggests many people aren’t familiar with the basic lingo of the utility industry.

For example, more than 30 percent of the 10,000 people polled across 15 countries have never heard the term “dollar per kilowatt-hour” (not surprising in places where the dollar isn’t the currency, of course, but I think you get the point.) More than 60 percent were unaware of either smart meters or smart grids.

Commenting about the survey results, Valocchi said:

“There have been major strides with new energy savings technologies, new programs and incentives, but in many cases the market is seeing more confusion amongst consumers than expected. This year’s survey points to a need and an opportunity to back to basics and educate consumers by using terms that they understand, behavioral triggers and channels they already use. People want to conserve energy; we just need to get better at showing them how.”

One thing uncovered by the IBM survey that jibes with other similar surveys that I have read is the fact that people are motivated by social factors. So, for example, they will act on advice and suggestions of neighbors and other community members. They also want to see how their habits compare to their neighbors; a little healthy competition, I suppose.

In the Dubuque pilot, right now, you have to have Internet access to participate. The data being read by the smart meters is collected and sent to the IBM Research Cloud every 15 minutes. Analytics software within the cloud is used to compare individual data with the aggregate, sending alerts when consumers might be able to make changes to reduce consumption or warning them about things such as phantom loads (sources of consumption that might not otherwise be noticed). Individual residents will only be allowed to see their own data; city officials will be able to see an anonymized aggregate data.

Dubuque recently completed a similar study focused on water consumption and management. During that study, the pilot households reduced power consumption by 6.6 percent, Valacchio said.