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Does Real-Time Feedback On Electricity Use Really Change Our Behavior?

Humans are fundamentally lazy. That extends to cutting down on energy use.

Does Real-Time Feedback On Electricity Use Really Change Our Behavior?
[Top photo: Ensuper via Shutterstock]

Is information power? Or more to the point, does information about our energy usage help us consume less power?

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Even though there are a growing number of smart devices and systems on the market designed to give feedback about energy and water usage, in hopes of nudging us to cut back, studies have shown mixed evidence as to whether they actually work in changing long-term behavior.


In September 2010, the developer of a new LEED Gold apartment building in Manhattan approached Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions with the idea of studying whether they could reduce energy use by giving occupants devices that gave them real-time feedback on their electricity demand. They chose the Modlet, a device made by ThinkEco, that monitors energy use at each outlet, appliance by appliance.

The results of the study, published recently as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, show that getting people to change their behavior is more complicated than it seems.


Apartments that randomly received the free Modlets did reduce their overall electricity demand somewhere between 12 and 23%, as shown by their electricity bills, compared to apartments in the building that didn’t get them. But strangely enough, the the data showed that none of the drop was actually due to their interaction with the Modlets. Instead, the authors believe, people probably changed their general electricity use behavior either because they knew they were being studied or because the effort required to install the Modlets simply made their electricity use more “salient” to them.

The lesson? As we’ve seen with the success of the Nest Learning Thermostat, energy savings systems need to require little from the user.

“As with programmable thermostats, using these devices requires a significant investment in time, effort, and motivation,” the paper says. “We believe that the user interfaces of in-home devices will have to be modified for them to be useful for the average user.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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