Energy Conservation Fueled by Social Pressure

The Smart, Angry Home

The New Yorker, January 5, 2015

Buildings are energy hogs. They require heating and cooling; they churn out hot water; they are thick with light bulbs, microwaves, and refrigerators. In 2013, residential and commercial buildings accounted for forty per cent of all the energy consumed in the United States. Smart meters and monitors offer one promising strategy for reducing consumption. Tell people how much power the air-conditioner actually uses, and how much money it’s costing them, and, the theory goes, they might decide that they can stand a little more heat. Studies have shown that this kind of feedback can reduce energy use by as much as twenty per cent. But, as a team of researchers at the University of Nottingham, in England, recently discovered, smart meters can alter more than our habits—they can also influence our emotional states.

Four years ago, the Nottingham group, led by the psychologist Alexa Spence, was preparing to equip a small number of buildings with monitors that would track electricity use and display the information on a Web site for the buildings’ occupants to see. First, though, the researchers decided to test the technology in their own homes. They soon discovered that the influx of data was putting their private habits on public display, to sometimes-awkward effect. “There was a situation in which somebody came into work and somebody else said, ‘Oh, you were in the shower for a long time this morning,’ ” Spence told me. Another member of the research team, as it turned out, liked to watch TV in the shower, a complicated maneuver that involved propping a laptop against a windowsill. “It immediately exposed things that were a bit controversial,” Spence said.

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