Smartest smart meter: The gasoline pump?

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Courtesy of Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

Americans do many things well. These things do not include sacrifice of creature comforts. So it came as a surprise to see US Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash) suggest we can avert 20% of our energy use if we take short “military showers” over 20 weeks.  Who the heck is going to do that? We already know from Jimmy Carter-era energy policies that lecturing Americans does not result in sustained conservation. So what’s Baird getting at? A clinical psychologist, he is among a growing group looking at behavioral triggers that will encourage us to consume energy more intelligently.

To buy prudently, consumers need to know
1. What a product costs
2. How much of the product they need

Sounds obvious, but it’s often not how we’re sold electricity.

Imagine if you had never been in a supermarket, and all of your food was delivered on demand via a conveyor belt into your house. You pay for the food just once a month and have no idea of the cost for each item you eat. When your bill shoots up, you do not know why. Having never done any grocery shopping, you’re unaware of the high price of the many pints of out-of-season, raspberries you consumed. So you buy the raspberries again and again.

We buy electricity much the same way. Power costs vary throughout the day, but we are unaware of any variation because of the way we consume and pay.

However, the marriage of energy, information technology and behavioral science are changing the way we buy electricity and other forms of energy. Several new devices help us see price, consumptions and alternatives. These include real-time traffic maps that helps us avoid routes where the car will idle and eat up gasoline, Quicken-type software to track our energy costs, smart meters and other new gadgets that lift the cloak from energy pricing. In the March 16 article, “Microsoft Puts Its Weight Behind IT's Energy-Saving Potential,” http://www.greenercomputing.com/blog/2010/03/16/microsoft-puts-weight-behind-it-energy-saving  GreenerComputing’s Marc Gunther discusses some of these technologies and the “democratization of information” they create to end the blind way we now shop for energy.

In the vein of making the consumer more aware, the Natural Resources Defense Council this week published a white paper that shows what drivers suffer most when gasoline prices rise. The paper comes as some analysts predict prices will exceed $3/gallon again this spring.

The economic impact will differ by state based on per capita gasoline use, according to the NRDC paper. http://docs.nrdc.org/energy/files/ene_10031601a.pdf  

Gasoline hikes hurt drivers most in these states:
• Mississippi
• Montana
• Louisiana
• Oklahoma
• South Carolina
• Kentucky
• Texas
• Maine
• Georgia
• Idaho

Price spikes cause the least economic harm in:
• Florida
• Washington
• Pennsylvania
• New Jersey
• Colorado
• New Hampshire
• Maryland
• Massachusetts
• New York
• Connecticut

Gasoline prices are more apparent than electricity prices to the consumer, since we see the cost each time we fill up at the pump. Indeed we see them blazing from lit signs along the roadway. We cannot miss each penny rise.

Perhaps that is why gasoline consumption drops when prices rise. People modify their behavior. Chances are if you spotted your state in the most vulnerable list, you’re already thinking of sacrifices or changes you will make this spring if the prices go up. It may be that behavioral psychologists need look no further than their neighborhood gas station for ideas on how to get people to take military showers. A price billboard in every home just might do the trick.

Visit Elisa Wood at http://www.realenergywriters.com/  and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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