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Digital energy: how can web technology be used for energy behaviour change?

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Sonny Masero, managing director of GALOS.co, explains how ‘cleanweb’ can be utilised to change our energy behaviour.

I was recently asked by Forum for the Future to speak at an event called ‘Digital energy: how can web technology be used for energy behaviour change?’ to a mixed audience of investors, corporations and start-ups. There were a range of directions in which this discussion could be taken and I wanted to complement Benjamin Kott and his experiences with EnergyDeck‘s commercial and social housing customers.

I talked about how technology can be used to accelerate behaviour change in how we consume energy both as consumers and in businesses. At a personal level, the motivators for change can be very similar – status (individual and corporate), reward (financial, promotion, peers), showcasing and fun are some examples – and these can manifest in different combinations within a business. For a fuller picture of behaviour change motivators, I would suggest a look at the Futerra Changemaker Cards, available for free from www.Futerra.co.uk.

My theme for the talk was not a specific company, although I do work with EnergyDeck and DemandLogic who are active in this area. My interest, is in the power of the cleanweb. The cleanweb is the use of web technology to tackle global environmental challenge. This is a unique combination of web technology and clean technology; definitely an ‘and’ not an ‘either/or’. There are a number of reasons why I say this:

1. The Power of Free is a new economic dynamic enabled by software delivered through the web which has a unique strength. It has the ability to reduce the marginal cost of customer acquisition and servicing towards zero, in many cases at least too small to matter.

What do I mean? For a company like DemandLogic to add an additional customer they need only a small box of electronics to connect an existing building management system (BMS) to the internet and their software hosted in the cloud. Their big data analytics can then be used to identify wasted energy and actions to save time and money. The challenge is then to efficiently sell the value of this subscription service in identifying large energy savings.

This is not the case for traditional cleantech businesses nor traditional enterprise software businesses; each of these are installed on a project by project basis with unique costs on each occasion. In many cases, this presents an opportunity for tailored or even bespoke customer requests reducing the ability to replicate with ease.

This software-led technology revolution creates a novel business dynamic and approach to product development which is new to cleantech. The financing and risk management can change fundamentally through rapid aggregation. SolarCity is a prime example which is now being replicated by others. SolarCity has aggregated a large number of domestic and commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) projects, which they’ve then used to create innovative financing mechanisms. They now plan to install 500 megawatts (MW) of solar PV on US homes in 2014. First mover advantage makes a big difference here compared to larger barriers to entry for hardware businesses.

Less capital intensive software development means that a minimum viable product can be made available in months rather than years. New features and functionality can be tested live in beta with an existing customer community. This adds up to a more agile business which can use capital more efficiently. It can also create a bubble of expectations that is not underpinned by tangible value, but Nest Labs is a success story where they have combined sexy hardware with a data model that has delivered a 20-times return for their investors. The Climate Corporation also succeeded last year with a $1 billion acquisition by Monsanto.

2. Scaling quicker is an attribution of this agility of software and being capital-lite, which means that new markets can be reached more quickly. This is scale that was not possible for energy hardware before web technologies and business models began to mature, even for large corporations as well as start-ups and SMEs. This unique cleanweb combination changes the economics for these businesses. I’ve already mentioned SolarCity, but you will see this rapid aggregation model happen for energy efficiency projects.

3. Utilise network and systems science. Whilst traditional energy tech can exist as discrete projects, a cleanweb solution is built on the principle of networking individuals or things. Etsy and Open Utility are examples of how a peer-to-peer network can be used to support the making economy and distributed energy generation. This type of network creates a source of data, which can be valuable in its own right. It can also create a community of interest. When this is done well, the web solution can increase the rate of learning within the community, and can over time be automated within the solution.

This combination of elements to deliver a fast rate of learning creates a more rapid change in the behaviours we see in the consumption of energy. Let me give you an example. Opower has used different tactics to engage consumers: using responsibility to encourage people to reduce energy because it would help save the planet, an approach which didn’t work at scale and appealed to those already converted. They then switched to the obvious choice of saving money, a reward for reducing energy, but what finally worked at scale was a behaviour change tactic focused on creating the new ‘normal’ and ‘status’. In this case, the status of an individual homeowners amongst their neighbours.

Are you the odd one out, using more or less energy than your neighbours? This tactic has been so successful for Opower’s 90 or so utility customers that they have now saved the same amount of energy as is needed by cities like San Francisco or Milan for a whole year. That’s savings of 2-4% across approximately 22 million consumers.

There are many tried and tested tactics for behaviour change. It is usually a combination of two or three tactics that work on us as individuals to make a different decision. This can be a marketing or sales tactic, but it can also be your other half getting their way. If cleanweb technologies can incorporate these tactics through a desirable user experience for active users they can make the feedback loop more direct and therefore faster, plus the technology can aggregate the responses automatically so that they learn at scale.

How could this cleanweb technology look to accelerate behaviour change?

1. Social networks that reinforce peer support and status highlighting whether you are the leader or the odd one out. Like 10:10, it can also be used to showcase the best to help visualise what action could be taken and how you could look if successful.

2. Timely (Big) Data: better quality and more timely information for identifying the right action, making that behaviour change action required very specific, managable and delivered at the right time when you might be predisposed to a change in behaviour. Locatable is an example of a property service now looking at energy benchmaking. Why is this interesting? Because they expect to have an audience of homeowners who are making a change in their home and therefore in a transition zone when they could be more susceptible to suggestions about making other changes like reducing energy consumption through retrofit measures.

3. Faster, data driven feedback for learning from mistakes as well as successes so that poor behaviour can be stopped and the successes replicated. Demand Logic does this by focusing on wasted energy. Providing real time feedback to building operators about which assets in their building are not working as they should be.

4. Easier action (automation): the better data and faster learning can be used for better recommendations, making the utility to act more relevant and can lead to automation. Automation is a desirable outcome for energy efficiency operations, but still lacking in many building environments that are not highly specialised operations.

5. Fun and reward through gamification. See Practically Green which provides a service to companies to engage employees in adopting more environmentally-friendly behaviour. Providing an online platform for scoring points, receiving badges and for making suggestions on what further actions can be taken. Leaderboards and team rankings can add an extra incentive.

Used effectively, the cleanweb can be utilised to speed up our actions to reduce energy consumption and use low-carbon distributed energy generation. The cleanweb also provides opportunity to find alternatives to high-carbon travel. See Loco2, a website designed to make it easier to book pan-European train travel and farming. See eCow, which collects and analyses data on ruminant healthcare to allow their diet to be optimised for health and productivity.

The UK cleanweb sector is new and emerging. Over the next few months, I will be completing a market scoping study with funding from Nesta to identify which companies are active in this market, what scope is there for new innovation and where is the support coming from for these innovators and entrepreneurs. The results will be published later this year. For more information on the cleanweb see www.cleanweb.org.uk and www.cleanweb.co.

Sonny Masero is managing director of GALOS.co. He is an investor, advisor and part-time director for a range of companies active in the cleanweb market. 

Photo: Stephen Gibson via stock.xchng

Further reading:

Technology: Let’s make this country the best

Intelligence Squared: Water, Food, Energy, Climate – Smart Solutions for 2050

TEDxLondon: City2.0

Cleantech venture investment at $6.8bn in 2013, led by energy efficiency

Global cleantech industry worth $170bn after growing 18% in 12 months

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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