Empowering energy education is a milestone for a less energy-consuming society. To achieve this, apps may help but the challenge is to make them really usable for the many
From home automation to bill management, our relationship with the electric systems in buildings is nowadays mainly based on the use of applications. In 2019 energy-saving software is hardly a novelty, and app stores are full of solutions to help consumers to manage electricity in the most virtuous way.
Panoramic Power, Eco-eye, Energy Watchdog, EnergySaver and CodeGreen Energy are just a few examples among the dozens of recently developed applications that try to meet this need.
But the path is still complicated: according to a recent scientific paper about tools to promote energy savings, most apps are used to monitor electricity and gas consumption levels rather than to lower them. Or, at least, this is what happens after the initial learning period.
According to Daphne Geelen, who was the lead author of the paper that appeared in the Energy Efficiency magazine, the main suggestion is that “the apps should be more effective with information that is actionable and meaningful with respect to the specific situation and goals for the household”.
Andrea Benetti, home automation consultant and collaborator of the Master in domotics and mobile applications of the University of Pisa in Italy, confirms: “An app must be able to respond to the needs of users, and be part of their daily routine.”
“At this historic time, from the hardware point of view, it is difficult to enter the market with an innovative product. This is because there is no empty space to fill and nor are there any major technical improvements possible. From the software point of view, the real challenge is to understand how to build an application that large numbers of people could really use. In other words, to design an app that stimulates curiosity, and that offers something tangible and quantifiable, like lower costs.”
One key aspect in educating people: they must be given the appropriate cultural elements even before they get equipped with a technical tool. And this is precisely the raison d'être of the EU project eTEACHER, which encourages and enables the urgent and necessary transition towards energy efficiency.
The researchers have developed an app that follows a sociological research phase, where feedback from different types of users were collected in order to understand which features are most appreciated. The first tests are already taking place in twelve pilot buildings in Spain, Romania and the UK.
“The full set of recommendations will be generated by the tool after the completion of the software development, within a few months,” says Hervé Pruvost from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, Division Engineering of Adaptive Systems in Dresden, Germany, which is a partner of the project. “Eventually the app will be connected to social media. It will have a reward programme for the users, together with a functionality that collects data from different buildings and makes it available to various software modules.”
The end of the project is set for late 2020, when the application is likely to become publicly available. Without going deep into the technical details, one of the app's characteristics is its integration with the current building automation and control systems (the so-called BACS), with the possibility to read the data and store it in a project-specific central database. This also implies the development of a communication interface and a list of add-ons that operate with a “what-if” logic.
“The innovation in our work consists in its universal approach,” clarifies Florian Frank, spokesperson of the German technical partner ACX GmbH, “combined with the unique add-ons that provide suggestions based on actually measured data.”
"The app is innovative because it uses real building data which is directly imported from the monitoring system, rather than relying on manually entered data," adds Hervé Pruvost. "Moreover, it doesn't just consider the overall situation but also individual rooms and levels within the building. And apart from analysing and showing total energy consumption, the app provides useful advice to help users change their behaviour. Furthermore, the model can be applied to any kind of building, regardless of type, size and usage."
That’s why the pilot buildings used for testing are highly different from each other: residential and non-residential with a multitude of different users.
Among other features of the app, designed to be used with a smartphone, is a gamification mechanism with missions for increasing user interest. Above all, the ICT solutions are meant to generate recommendations in real time, sending them directly to the user. And the technical portfolio is completed by a pre- and post-processing service that continuously collects user feedback.
The developers hope the app will really improve consumers’ behaviour. “If users can get a feel for how much energy they consume,” says Florian Frank, “they will see how much CO2 is being produced, and hopefully we will raise awareness in society.”
"We hope the app will be adopted by a large number of users, which would result in large-scale energy savings and contribute substantially to the EU's sustainability policies and targets,” says Hervé Pruvost.
“Based on my experience,” says Andrea Benetti, “with simple everyday improvements you can reduce emissions by 30%, saving up to a quarter of the costs. Even though we have been talking a lot about energy and sustainability,” he adds, “most people have confused ideas. The classic example is the overestimation of the benefits of photovoltaic panels, without having a precise idea of what strongly affects consumption and consequently carbon footprint, like the fridge, the oven, the dishwasher and the cooling-heating systems.”
The most complicate issue, it would seem, isn't the app's technical development, but finding how to grip people's imagination.