August 25, 2011, 11:55 PM — Some residents of a small town in Iowa have cut their electricity use by 11 percent in a test that combines smart meters with cloud-based data analytics.
Utility company Alliant Energy installed smart meters at 1,000 homes and businesses in the town of Dubuque, which is close to the borders of Wisconsin and Illinois and has a population of about 60,000.
The smart meters report energy consumption to the utility every 15 minutes, and at the end of each day the data is shipped off to an IBM data center 600 miles away in Lexington, Kentucky, for analysis.
Residents can then log into an online portal to see information such as how much energy they have used that month, how it compares to previous months and how it compares to other households with similar characteristics.
Millions of smart meters have been installed in the U.S. but they're being used mostly as a more convenient way for utilities to bill their customers, said Mark Bramfitt, an independent energy industry consultant.
It's hoped that smart meters will also help consumers reduce their energy use, but engagement levels have sometimes been low. Just recently, Microsoft and Google both scrapped their online home-energy-management services, citing a lack of adoption.
One of the goals of the Dubuque test is to show that getting consumers more engaged, by having them compete against each other or use social networking to exchange tips, can allow such projects to succeed.
"Our theory is that without engaging the end user, we will not see the kind of projected results that we've been told smart meters will unleash," said Milind Naphade, program director for IBM's Smarter City Services Research.
The initial results in Dubuque are promising. Of the 1,000 households with smart meters, 800 agreed to take part in the test, and 200 of those have logged into the website to track their energy use. The industrywide average for "energy portal engagement" is 8 percent, Naphade said, so the test in Dubuque has exceeded that.
Sixty households have gone a step further and signed up for "activity groups" built around particular projects, such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs. The households in activity groups have cut their energy use by 11 percent, Naphade said. The test will run from July to December so the results are preliminary.
IBM's software analyzes the meter data and puts households with similar characteristics into groups. They are then told where they rank compared to their peers. "We tell you whether you are number 15 or number 30 or whatever. We've found that to be a significant motivating factor," Naphade said.