Most Wisconsin households could save $90 a year and slash energy use by selectively unplugging devices that draw power even when not in use, according to a study by Alliant Energy.
These “always on” devices include things like wireless internet routers, which need electricity to maintain a constant connection, or televisions, which take a long time to power up and need some juice in order to respond when you push the remote control.
But there are dozens of other culprits — including computers, printers, rarely used DVD players and anything with a DC power converter — sucking up power around the clock.
A 2015 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated nearly a quarter of all household electricity use in the United States is consumed by appliances and other equipment in standby mode.
Over the course of a year, that can add up to more than $300 worth of electricity for the average Wisconsin household and the equivalent output of 50 large power plants.
Alliant customers in the ongoing study discovered things like an attic fan, a baby monitor that fell behind a dresser and numerous cell phone chargers, said Jeff Adams, lead customer product manager for the utility.
Adams said the ability for customers to monitor electricity use in real-time with the Sense app provides a greater sense of urgency and control than a monthly bill.
Using one of the $299 Sense monitors in his own home, Adams discovered a light had been left on in a spare room in the basement. He can also pinpoint the day his son and daughter-in-law came to stay with him.
“You see it. It’s right there in front of your face,” Adams said. “Now they can take action to change it.”
David Devereaux-Weber bought a Sense monitor on his own to see if there were any energy hogs in his home on Madison’s near West Side.
A retired cable TV system engineer, Devereaux-Weber was surprised that his heater was more efficient than he thought, but with the app he discovered a couple of incandescent bulbs still in use.
“It helps you discover when you’re wasting energy,” he said. “The most striking thing was how much the coffee maker uses.”
Speech recognition for appliances
In 2018, Alliant equipped 100 homes with Sense monitors. The study was later expanded and is expected to include 300 homes by the end of this year.
Hooked to the main circuit box, the Wi-Fi-enabled sensor figures out how much electricity each device in the home is using and when. It works by measuring the current a million times per second and feeding the data into a powerful computer that can “learn” to read patterns.
This is possible because most electronic devices have unique signatures or wave forms. For example, toasters and incandescent light bulbs both use resistance to heat up an element, but a tungsten filament heats up much faster than a toaster element, which results in a quicker drop in current. A compact fluorescent bulb produces an entirely different wave form.
Before launching Sense Labs in 2015, Mike Phillips and his two co-founders worked in the field of speech recognition, developing the software that allows our smart phones to understand us. (Their android app, Vlingo, powered early versions of Siri before she joined Apple.)
Phillips, the company’s CEO, said creating algorithms to identify appliances is a similar challenge, but harder.
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“It’s like doing speech recognition with 30 people talking at once,” Phillips said.
Individual and system-wide savings
With a budget of $398,000, the study does more than show participants where they can save money, said Alliant spokeswoman Annemarie Newman.
It could help Focus on Energy, the state’s ratepayer-funded energy efficiency program, figure out what types of old and inefficient appliances are still in use and come up with strategies to replace them.
The study found Sense monitors could be a substitute for in-person energy audits and could help utilities design effective programs that compensate customers for trimming peak demand as an alternative to building new power plants.
Even with the rapidly falling price of solar and wind energy, cutting consumption is one of the most cost-effective ways to save money and cut greenhouse gas emissions, said Steve Kihm, chief economist for the Madison-based nonprofit consulting firm Slipstream.
A recent Slipstream evaluation found energy efficiency investments in Minnesota yielded $4 in benefits for every dollar spent, and another recent study credits energy efficiency gains for half of the reductions in utility-sector carbon dioxide emissions since 2005.
The NRDC estimated consumers could save $8 billion and 44 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions just by reducing idle load.
“As a general proposition, energy efficiency is a slam-dunk win on an economic basis,” Kihm said.
The Alliant study grew out of a 2016 Public Service Commission initiative to examine the role broadband internet access can play in expanding energy-efficiency programs and services.
In the first phase, Alliant specifically targeted rural customers in low- to middle-income zip codes to see if the technology could mitigate some of the cost barriers that have traditionally prevented those customers from taking full advantage of Focus on Energy.
Alliant deliberately targeted customers with higher than average use, although nearly all participants said they had already taken some steps to conserve energy.
Still, after installing the monitors, more than half said they made additional changes to their daily routines. The number of people who reported unplugging unused electronics doubled.
Adams was shocked by some of the behavioral changes.
Prior to the program, 86% of participants said they regularly turned off lights when they aren’t in the room.
“I’d consider that a win,” Adams said. “I wouldn’t even waste my time trying to push that higher.”
And yet after installing the Sense monitors, that figure jumped to 97%.
Study participant Zach Stocks said he’d already taken advantage of some Focus on Energy offers — such as free LED bulbs and low-flow shower heads — but was curious to see how much energy his appliances were using.
Stocks discovered his aging furnace and air conditioner were using a lot more energy than they should be.
“It was surprising. There would be times I’d see I was drawing 2,100 watts, which is kind of eye opening,” he said, adding, “I’m on borrowed time.”
(Editor's note: This story has been updated to note involvement of the consulting firm Cadmus.)