An effective measure to reduce energy consumption in buildings is to deploy technologies that have the ability to influence occupants’ behaviours towards a sustainable lifestyle and being less wasteful of electricity. The characteristics of this group of technologies are to make information and data related to energy consumption visible to the occupants, and to make the benefits of being energy efficient tangible to the occupants, especially in monetary terms.
At present, key technologies, which can be considered as behaviour change catalysts, include:
- Energy efficient appliances
- Home area network (HAN), also known as smart home technologies
- Pre-paid meters, which have been implemented in African countries as well as in parts of China and Indonesia.
While energy efficient electrical appliances and pre-paid meters are proven technologies and widely implemented, HAN is a rather new technology that has the potential for future large-scale applications.
Energy efficient appliances differentiate themselves from conventional appliances in terms of consuming less electricity for the same service and service quality. Key high-energy consuming appliances, such as air-conditioners, refrigerators, clothes washers, clothes dryers, water heaters, etc., are the main targets for energy efficiency improvement. In recent years, the energy consumption of standby and low-power-mode of appliances have been noted for their energy consumption. Their accumulative energy consumption globally accounts for as much as 1% of global CO2 emissions and 2.2% of OECD electricity consumption (IEA, 2001). This have led to a worldwide race for research, development and production of energy efficient appliances. For example, between the late 1990s and the end of 2007, Japan’s Top Runner Program – an initiative to upgrade appliance efficiency standards in Japan –saw the efficiency standards for various appliances raised by 15% to 83%, depending on the types of appliances (Brown, 2009).
Home area network (HAN) is a network within a home that connects electrical domestic appliances (i.e., HVAC, lighting, refrigerators, washing machines, water heaters, televisions, computers, etc.) to smart meters. The smart meters allow homeowners/tenants to monitor and manage their energy use and remotely monitor and control thermostats and other electric appliances through personal digital devices (computers, mobile phones, etc.).
HAN ranges from a simple in-home energy display unit to advanced energy management systems at the community and urban scale. Basic level in-home display units include programmable thermostats and automation functions for intelligent domestic appliances. They provide convenience for homeowners and also allow them to understand their energy usage patterns. At the advanced level, in-home display units are connected to smart meters for wider energy management at the community and urban scale through smart grid systems. Some key application capabilities are:
- Gather data about homeowners/tenants lifestyles and patterns of everyday activities
- Analyse the above data and synthesise the optimal operation parameters for appliances (e.g., temperature census, automatic on or off times) to optimise energy consumption and yet suit a particular lifestyle
- Carry out two-way communication with smart grid (where applicable) to exchange real time energy demand from the consumer end, feed into the grid any surplus energy, and receive electricity supply dynamic pricing (i.e., peak vs. off-peak). At this level, HAN can also assist in optimising electricity demand side that is cost effective for the homeowners and reduces peak load demand to the communal energy supply infrastructure.
HAN technologies and application capabilities are still under research and development to overcome barriers for widespread implementation. These barriers include:
- Lack of a common protocol to facilitate the compatibility in communication among various HAN technologies/products and between HAN and a smart grid system
- Lack of guarantee to prevent the possibility of data leakage that compromises homeowner/tenant privacy
- Poor market penetration and user acceptability at the present.
Pre-paid meters have been implemented mainly in Africa as an innovative alternative to conventional electricity meters. Electricity meters measure the amount of electricity used in a building or spatial units of a building over a period of time, and displays the measurement in kilowatts per hour (kWh). The popular application of conventional electricity meters is to facilitate the reading of the amount of electricity already consumed, so that utility companies can compute the fee and charge customers accordingly. However, this procedure is reversed in the application of pre-paid meters, in which consumers are required to pay up-front for a certain amount of electricity prior to consuming it.
In other words, pre-paid meters are used to regulate the amount of electricity to be supplied to consumers. In application, consumers purchase tokens from vending machines located at convenient locations in the village/town. The tokens can then be inserted into electricity dispensers installed at each household. More advanced applications include online vending systems, which can be used in combination with electronic banking. Such systems help reduce operational costs for the utility providers, which can be translated to lower electricity costs for consumers.
Energy efficient appliances pose neither special spatial nor additional technical requirements for their applications, as they are typically no different in size and shape compared to conventional ones.
Home area network (HAN) can be easily applied at domestic level, which is to network the electrical appliances with an in-home display system and personal digital devices (e.g., internet-accessible computer, mobile phone, etc.) for monitoring and remote control. The key equipment includes:
- ‘Smart’ power points, which make the connected appliances identifiable and controllable by the network
- A gateway device with wireless connection to the ‘smart’ power points to gather information about the energy consumption of the connected appliances
- An interactive display unit, which shows the data gathered from the gateway device and allows users to monitor energy usage or even customise energy profiles for the appliances. The wireless information in the display unit can also be viewed and controlled from personal internet-based devices, such as computers and mobile phones.
Where smart grids are available, the advanced comprehensive application of HAN to address energy management at the community and urban scale can be made possible, through two-way communication between HAN and the smart grid via a smart meter installed at each household.
Pre-paid meters require mainly the credit and/or vending system set out by utility providers. At the building and household level, the technical requirements are similar to those necessary for the installation of a conventional meter. The key requirements include:
- Protecting meters from weather, especially rain,
- Locating meters away from potential contact with water or heat sources
- Being accessible for maintenance.
Feasibility for implementation
Energy efficient appliances are often analysed or verified through product energy labelling systems, which can be initiated by governmental agencies or reputable NGOs. Examples include Energy Star by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, and Singapore’s Mandatory Energy Labelling Scheme for key domestic appliances (i.e., air-conditioners, refrigerators and cloth dryers) by the National Environment Agency. Though labelling schemes, consumers can easily compare the energy efficiency of different products of similar capacity, as well as the energy and monetary savings from operating more efficient products. To strengthen its application, product energy labelling schemes are often integrated with local green building rating tools (where available).
Home area network is still at the market testing stage, and requires much more effort prior to large-scale implementation. First of all, technology providers have to establish a common set of standards and protocols for compatible integration of various products, and further fine tune their products to be friendly and appealing to end-users. Secondly, demonstration projects and awareness building programme to the general public should be in place at the initial market penetration stage. Thirdly, more research and development is needed to bring down the cost, so that HAN technologies can also be used by middle- and lower-income end users. From the institutional setting aspect, a simple form of electricity dynamic pricing – i.e., different electricity tariffs for peak- and off-peak consumption – will be an initiative for large-scale implementation of HAN. Once these are in place, more sophisticated dynamic pricing – e.g., hourly-based or real-time based pricing – can be developed to encourage homeowners to become even more energy conscious.
Pre-paid meters are most feasible in assisting electrification of rural communities at the early stage. The implementation requires good collaboration and communication among the power plant operators, utility providers, local government, and members of the community. Each of these stakeholders have distinct, but interrelated roles. For instance, the local government puts in place clear policies and provides incentives. Power plant operators and utility providers work out economic feasibility and provide the infrastructure and operate the system. Members of the community are updated with knowledge about how the system works and are empowered with basic maintenance procedures. The more advanced form of pre-paid meters, such as online vending systems, can be implemented in the communities where majority of households are networked.
Energy efficient appliances have already established a strong foothold in developed countries and have become popular in developing countries. This is due to rising energy prices, public consciousness about energy consumption and government mandates. Furthermore, the market potential for energy efficient appliances is high, thanks to the growing number of voluntary energy efficiency labelling schemes, mandatory minimum energy efficiency standards, and mandatory energy information labelling for appliances in many local and national governments. One example is the Mandatory Energy Information Labelling Scheme by the China National Institute of Standards (CNIS). The scheme was launched in 2005 to cover only two products. In 2007, the Scheme was extended to cover three key appliance types including air conditioners, refrigerators, and clothes washers. The CNIS went on to implement the Mandatory Energy Efficiency Standards, which cover most residential and commercial appliances, lighting, heating and cooling equipment (Zhou, 2008). In brief, it is anticipated that the use of energy efficient appliances will become mainstream, under the market forces and the incentives of supporting policies.
Home area networks are at the infancy stage of market testing and penetration. The potential market for HAN is limited to the high-end residential sector. This is due to the high costs and high-tech requirements.
Pre-paid meters were first established in the UK, and launched in 1992 in South Africa to support the nation-wide electrification programme. Pre-paid meters are popular in South Africa, where the technology is reported to enjoy the highest market penetration. Furthermore, South Africa is the world leader in pre-paid meter manufacture. Their applications are extended to other countries in Africa and to other regions, such as Turkey, Indonesia and China.
While all the three focus technologies – energy efficient appliances, HAN and pre-paid meters – contribute directly to domestic energy savings and thus GHG emissions reductions. The contribution of these technologies to social development is significant because they provide a catalyst for mass behaviour change toward a more sustainable lifestyle. For example, HAN allows home owners to view user-friendly real time data on the energy consumption of appliances and equipment. This offers a catalyst for people to take decisions and actions leading to energy savings. Furthermore, HAN, through automated two-way communication, provides a platform for electricity providers to improve their operational efficiency.
Pre-paid meters were originally used to address social issues of energy theft and tampering with electricity meters. Soon after, the application of pre-paid meters required consumers to plan ahead for their electricity demands. Subsequently, they serve as constant reminder to consumers to use energy wisely.
The increasing popularity of energy efficient appliances also serves as a catalyst for green economic development. HAN, together with smart grids at the community and urban scale, has a great potential to become vital means for the implementation of dynamic pricing of electricity supply, which in turn becomes another catalyst to further strengthen energy saving practice. HAN improves the match between electricity demand and supply and, as such, helps reduce peak demand, leading to reduced electricity supply constraints and the need for power infrastructure expansion.
Energy efficient appliances, in many cases, cost more than conventional appliances. This is due to the incorporation of new energy saving technologies, as well as their relatively early market penetration stage. However, the cost of energy efficient electrical appliances is projected to be lower than that of the nonenergy- saving appliances, thanks to future economy of scale, possible regulation intervention (e.g., carbon tax), and their progress toward being the norm among consumers. The encouraging fact is that most energy efficient appliances in the market can have their investment returned after a period of time through energy savings. With the trend of higher energy prices, the return on investment period of energy efficient appliances becomes shorter, providing further incentives for their application.
Home area network requires homeowners to invest upfront to install the related equipment. Other costs include minor costs related to their energy used for the in-home display unit, and for maintenance. In addition, a small budget needs to be set aside for system and software upgrades, as the technologies are still at the fine-tuning stage.
Pre-paid meters require financial investment from a utility provider to lay out the distribution infrastructure, install vending machines, and operate the system. A small upfront investment is often required from the consumers to install pre-paid meters in their homes. Subsequently, consumers will have to budget themselves to pre-pay for the electricity to be consumed.
ABS Energy Research (2007). Prepayment Metering (2nd Ed.). ABS Energy Research.
Brown R. L. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
IEA (2001). Things that Go Blip in the Night.: Standby Power and How to Limit It. Paris: International Energy Agency.
Zhou N. (2008). Status of China’s Energy Efficiency Standards and Labels for Applances and International Collaboration. USA: Ernest Orlando Berkeley National Laboratory.