Energy Management Can Empower Everyone Regardless of Income Level

Source: Verizon

Source: Verizon

The holidays are upon us. As we prepare to gather with our friends and family, eat too much, and lounge around watching football, many people use this time to reflect on what they are grateful for. Being able to pay one’s electricity bill probably doesn’t make most people’s list, but for many Americans, it might.

The average household spends $1,945 annually on electricity, and homes with the lowest 20 percent of income spent nearly six percent of their income on energy bills. For many households, the cost of energy remains unaffordable. To put it in perspective, compared to middle- or upper-class homes, low-income households spend about twice the percentage of their income on energy. Yet, as Greentech Media points out, “many [energy management] solutions are tailored to the biggest homes, those awash in thousands of square feet of central air with a pool pump. Other solutions are tailored for middle-class homes, such as aggressive rebates for more efficient appliances. Many apartment-dwellers, however, do not own their major appliances.”

The future of smart home, energy-saving technologies is often more focused on affluent, early-adopters who benefit from innovative ways to save energy because they can afford the newest gadgets. Thankfully, these people are using their buying power to lead the way, as more demand will bring prices down for everyone. While it is important for all of us to conserve and better manage energy use, low-income individuals have the most to gain. Yet the technologies that can enable savings are often out of financial reach.

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Enter Pecan Street, Inc.

As a partner to the largest energy research database in the world, EDF is always impressed by the hundreds of trials and deployments that Pecan Street oversees. They are finding the real-world answers needed to secure our democratized energy future, free of pollution and full of savings. But again, if our focus is only on the wealthier classes, we are not fulfilling the opportunity that a smart, distributed clean energy world presents.

In November 2013, the Verizon Foundation and Pecan Street launched a pilot in the Austin area to investigate both quantitative and qualitative energy use data from multi-family and low-income residents. The project, entitled Smart Solutions for Affordable Housing, enlisted 140 apartment volunteers who are provided with Samsung Galaxy tablets, smart thermostats like Nests, and wireless internet service.

Using Pecan Street’s online energy portal, residents receive real-time information and guidance on their energy consumption, electric bills, and the condition of their appliances, as well as their heating and cooling systems. Once residents overcome the digital divide and feel comfortable with the technology basics, they are empowered to control their energy use. Seeing their energy use more granularly will, according to Verizon, “help participating customers cut their energy costs and procure the long-term benefits of a low-carbon economy.”

The residents speak for themselves

“I fought to the bitter end against the computer revolution. Heck, I was like that with the microwave. But this technology has become part of my routine, part of my day,” says Jim Mayfield, a retired mortgage broker who lives in Wildflower Terrace, the senior living apartment complex.

Akemy Acosta, who lives with her husband Alan and their second-grade daughter, didn’t see much connection between technology and energy, other than the fact that their favorite gadgets need to be plugged in. “The ability to see our energy use on a computer screen has had a big impact,” says Ms. Acosta. Now she is more deliberate about using curtains to shade the windows and using their Nest to shave air conditioning bills. Most powerful is the impact the research has had on how she views the world. “I think about energy now. I notice all the solar panels in town. I recognize hybrids on the road. It’s like a flip was switched on in my head.”

Austin is known for being a modern, tech-savvy town. But issues like energy efficiency and renewable energy are not mainstream in Austin’s Hispanic communities, she says. “It’s great that Pecan Street is working with renters. We need to be part of this change, too. And we like to save on our energy bill, too!”

Beyond Pecan Street

The success of the Smart Solutions for Affordable Housing pilot is timely, as the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) works to complete the state’s multi-billion dollar smart grid investment. As I’ve written before, Texas has more smart meters than any other state in the U.S. – 7 million meters. This infrastructure has provided efficiencies to an antiquated electric grid. However, meters are only half the answer. Customer-facing technologies (i.e. the interactive systems within the home) are the other part of this puzzle and have not been deployed with as much zeal.

To realize wide-scale adoption, the PUCT asked the three largest electric transmission providers in the state to provide low-income families, with the infrastructure (including the Internet) needed to access energy use data and respond to price signals. Other regions have deployed similar pilot projects, such as PowerCentsDC, and found that nearly all participants (regardless of household income) saved money, though low-income customers can save more than average on certain programs.

The Verizon work at Pecan Street is some of the most important research that has been conducted to date, as data in this arena has been lacking. To help solve the data gap and learn more about energy use in low-income and multifamily buildings, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Julián Castro recently called on utilities to provide data for multifamily housing.

As we celebrate the tidings of the season, let’s not forget that, while Texas is making strides in its journey toward a clean energy future, many of our neighbors are still struggling to pay for their electricity bills. While we plan ways to give back to those in need this month (as a whopping 34 percent of all charitable giving is done in the last three months of the year) consider Gridmates, an Austin-based startup leveraging crowd-sourcing to give the gift of warmth and electricity this holiday season (or any time of the year). Every one of us should feel empowered to take advantage of energy-saving technologies. And Pecan Street is helping us get there.

This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

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