Can glorified glow lamps stop blackouts and slash energy costs? Manhattan-based ConsumerPowerline thinks so. This winter, about a thousand participants in the company’s energy-conservation program will receive small plug-in boxes that glow red when power demand peaks, urging them to turn off space heaters, defer dishwasher runs, or otherwise save electricity.
Energy suppliers respond to spikes in demand by gearing up extra production capacity. That can be so expensive that many utilities are willing to pay to promote conservation during periods of peak use. ConsumerPowerline pays apartment complexes, companies, and institutions to conserve on cue, then resells the resulting “negawatts”–reduction in demand–to utilities in New York, Massachusetts, and California.
Currently, ConsumerPowerline requests negawatts from its participants by paging them or sending them faxes, e-mails, or voice mails. This month, however, the firm received its first shipment of digital gauges, each about the size of an air freshener, that download information over a low-bandwidth satellite pager network. In the coming weeks, the company will distribute the gauges to participants in its program and, in some cases, display them in public spaces. Humphrey Wong, ConsumerPowerline’s manager of incentive innovations, hopes that the devices will lead to an additional 5 to 10 percent drop in power consumption among organizations that already deliver reductions of 15 percent or more.
“We’re trying to provide a relatively inexpensive tool for people to be informed about when to make good energy decisions,” Wong says. That tool, the Joule, was developed jointly by ConsumerPowerline and MIT Media Lab spinoff Ambient Devices, based in Cambridge, MA.
When a utility schedules what’s called in the business a “demand response event,” Ambient signals the appropriate Joules to turn from green to blue and to display a countdown to the time at which the utility wants negawatts. Two hours before the event, the blue light begins to pulse. Finally, the Joule glows red to signal the start of the event, and it displays a new countdown that lets the user know when the event will end.
Wong hopes that, in addition to increasing conservation among current participants in ConsumerPowerline’s program, streamlined communications will enable the company to reach out to individual homeowners–a largely untapped market–thereby multiplying its capacity to deliver negawatts.
The Joule isn’t Ambient Devices’ first foray into demand response. Since 2004, major California utilities have been testing Ambient’s Energy Orb, a glass sphere that changes color to indicate the state of the grid. One utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, adopted the Orb as a commercial product last year, distributing 2,000 Orbs to customers who have agreed to supply negawatts. Like all of Ambient’s products, the Orb receives its instructions over the pager network.
Ambient is also testing a new signaling device with EnBW, Germany’s third-largest utility. Because energy prices in Germany vary by the hour, the new device will receive even more information than the Joule will. Its three-inch-square LCD screen is large enough to display crude graphs of hour-by-hour pricing for the next 24 hours as well as a forecast of the following day’s energy prices and weather.