Submitted by Cornell University
Extreme weather and changing patterns of electricity use have led to blackouts and unpredictable utility bills across the nation.
To address that unpredictability, Cornell University researchers are piloting a new payment plan and an app that would provide consumers with more information about their energy use and incentives to reduce use, while also allowing utility companies to respond more nimbly in times of crisis. Avangrid, the parent company of New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), is an initial partner.
“We have all been consuming electricity since we were born, but we don’t know how we consume electricity,” said Madhur Srivastava, assistant research professor in chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We have no understanding of how much electricity each appliance uses, for example, or each light bulb, or how the costs change for a particular time of use. How can we change our behavior if we have no analysis of it?”
Srivastava was drawn to the issue when he noticed how his electricity bills fluctuated each month, without knowing why or having a clear way to control or predict the monthly bill. In interviews with community members, his team found that this variability was widespread and sometimes caused hardship, especially for small businesses operating on narrow profit margins.
As a result, the pilot run by Srivastava’s group (Signal Science Lab) will offer a tiered, subscription-based pricing plan to participants, beginning in late-January. Around 200 NYSEG customers have enrolled, but customers of any utility company in the U.S. can register.
Instead of a variable bill every month, participants will pay a flat rate, choosing from subscription price tiers generated from prior use and essentially committing to a pattern of consumption or a goal for consumption. The app will then provide information to keep participants on track and alert them to possible savings.
“If you use a washer and dryer after 7 p.m., you’re going to be charged less than if you use it during the daytime, but people do not know that,” said Shikhar Prakash, a doctoral student in Srivastava’s group. “If we can provide that information to the customer in an efficient way, even in real time, as they are using their dryer, it provides an incentive to reduce their electricity bill. Currently, there is no platform for the utility companies to reach out to specific segments of customers in this way.”
Srivastava hopes the project will impact energy policy both in New York state and nationwide, especially in the western U.S., where summer blackouts have become common. Srivastava is currently in talks with multiple utility companies from across the country – all facing similar challenges – to formally expand the pilot.
For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.