The home of the future is one where technology plays a starring role in managing energy demand and conditioning consumers to be more energy efficient.
Household smart meters will have a two-way dialogue with utilities, the better to balance a city’s supply and demand of energy. Dishwashers and other smart appliances will automatically run when both the demand and cost of electricity are at their lowest. Consumers will track their up-to-the-minute energy usage on personal electronic devices, seeing an immediate connection between their everyday habits and household energy bills.
There is just one hitch in this vision of tomorrow: If consumers are to adopt new technology and learn new behaviour, they need to start caring a lot more about their household energy usage.
Energy as a low-involvement category
Unfortunately, for the most part, consumers don’t care about energy per se. What they care about are the services that energy provides: clean clothes, a clean home, refrigerated food, a comfortable household temperature.
While these services are essential, they are largely taken for granted, provoking little thought or emotion until an event occurs, perhaps an outage or the bill arriving. Depending on the size of household income, even the bill won’t be a high priority.
This makes energy a low-involvement category, one that requires as minimal a personal investment as buying a fast-food lunch or office supplies.
The statistics bear this out. A 2010 Accenture study of consumer interest in various industries found that only 10% of consumers worldwide have an interest in gas and electric utilities. Compare this to the 35% of consumers who have an interest in travel and tourism or the 26% with an interest in consumer electronics manufacturers.
Decisions calling on heart and mind
Tourism and consumer electronics are high-involvement categories. Consumers care deeply about their vacations; travel plans are much-debated emotional decisions and past vacations are reminisced over for years. Consumers also care about buying their next television, computer or personal electronic device, balancing rational considerations like performance and price with the emotional allure of coveted brands.
In contrast, energy usage requires little contemplation; consumers will turn on an electric kettle, hair dryer or dishwasher as if on autopilot. Yet more contemplation is needed if society is to gain realize all the gains that come from embedding smart technology in homes.
A Sussex Energy Group survey of existing research found that simply providing consumers with direct feedback on their energy usage via a smart meter or display monitor can result in a savings of 5 – 15%. Multiply those savings by every household in a jurisdiction and soon enough consumer energy use is taking less of a toll on the power supply and the environment.
If consumers are to keep pace with technology, the energy category needs to shift from low to high involvement – at least for long enough to seed mass adoption. Once hearts and minds are engaged, behaviour change is more likely to follow.