The ability to share information digitally, which has become so valuable for businesses, employees and consumers, is also bringing advantages for the energy industry, in terms of expense and efficiency.
Many potential energy-saving advances are dependent on the development of smart grids. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electric Delivery and Energy Reliability, a smart grid is a computerized version of a traditional power grid that allows utilities and customers to automatically adjust and control devices connected to the grid. These can include household appliances, such as refrigerators, air conditioners and televisions.
A smart grid utilizes smart meters, which allow utility companies and their customers to share real-time data about energy use.
A May 2012 report by the Institute for Electric Efficiency (IEE) found that approximately 36 million smart meters had been installed in the United States, representing about one-third of all households and a more than 400% increase since December 2007. The IEE estimated that 65 million meters would be deployed by 2015.
The upward trajectory in the use of smart grid and smart meter technology comes at the same time that ownership of smartphones and other mobile devices is increasing, and the popularity of social media is growing. According to Pew Internet research in 2012, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are active on social networks and nearly half of American adults own a smartphone.
Some companies are already capitalizing on these trends. For example, Arlington, Virginia-based OPower has partnered with 85 power companies around the world, including in 31 U.S. states, to provide consumers with energy monitoring software. OPower, which was founded in 2007, offers a Social Energy app that encourages utility customers to form online communities and compete against each other to be the most energy-efficient. In some cases, customers can earn prizes.
According to its website, OPower has helped utility customers to cut their bills by $280 million and save enough electricity to power a city of 500,000 people for a year. The company was named a 2013 Bloomberg New Energy Finance Pioneer.
In May 2013, OPower announced a partnership with Rhode Island to enroll the state’s more than 400,000 residential utility customers in the company’s Home Energy Report program. The program will allow customers to anonymously compare their energy use against that of their neighbors. It also will provide consumers with energy-saving tips and rewards from retailers for cutting consumption.
Other companies also are using the popularity of social networking to foster energy-efficiency. Among them is Welectricity, a free online service that allows users to share and compare their power bills, and exchange suggestions for reducing energy use. The service can be linked to a user’s Twitter or Facebook account. Much like OPower, Welectricity is based on the notion that people are more likely to respond to information and feedback than to information alone.
Social media and mobile devices are likely to play an expanding role in the development of smart grids, which rely heavily on the availability of real-time data.
“Social networking and related online sharing services provide a convenient way to not only significantly improve information dissemination, but also control power consumption collaboratively during system outages, and improve system utilization and effectiveness as a result,” noted a January 2013 article published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.