Two Stanford students rethink the light switch

By Peter Russo and Brendan Wypich

Electricity seems to be getting smarter. As utility and software companies band together to make the smart grid a burgeoning reality, electric cars are quietly and efficiently taking people to and from work. But as our homes and cars get smarter, are people getting any smarter about energy use?

We tried to answer this question when we developed the SmartSwitch, a dimmer switch equipped with a network connection and a miniature brake pad. The switch provides tactile feedback about the amount of energy being used either within your household or by the electrical grid as a whole. Our goal with this device is to help you make smarter decisions about energy use at the very moment that you’re pulling electricity from the grid.

An existing technology that is making us “smarter” about home energy use is the energy monitoring system, which typically provides usage totals and averages on a computer screen. While monitoring systems are good at generating awareness, they rely heavily on you to check your usage information on a regular basis, remember this data, and make more efficient decisions the next time you use an appliance or turn on a light. By using SmartSwitches along with your home monitoring system, you receive feedback at the time and point of use — changing behavior in the moment, rather than after the fact.

It’s important to note that the SmartSwitch doesn’t restrict you from turning on a light. Rather, mindless habits like flipping on a light when it’s not really needed are slightly disrupted — hence why we consider it to be a “nudge”. It helps you to make an informed decision, while not telling you what to do. We also believe that the key to stimulating behavior change is to change the context in which a person looks at energy. The SmartSwitch does this by connecting together multiple users — across a building, a neighborhood, or even a town or a state. By changing the notion of electrical power from private ownership to shared responsibility, you feel part of a larger cause.

We believe that providing in-the-moment feedback will help you make smarter decisions around your energy usage. The smarter the users, the smarter the grid.

Addendum: Peter and Brendan respond to readers’ questions here.

5 Responses to “Two Stanford students rethink the light switch”

  1. Nandu Muralidharan Says:

    This is a great idea! It would be very useful if a system can be build that will analyze the power usage in the house and give a detailed breakup of power usage(pie-charts) by appliances/rooms/categories etc & also provide a month-month trend on how power utilization for each of the categories/appliances.

    This would help people to identify areas they need to focus to optimize their power usage, set some targets and work towards it.

  2. Trevor Rotzien Says:

    Brilliant. While we, as humans, like to think we are very subtle and sophisticated in our decision making, we respond well to direct positive or negative stimulus. This could be an excellent “nudge”. I hope the students are attracting support from and synergy with the smartgrid pioneering companies, so their switches can plug-and-play.

    @trevorrotzien

  3. Dave Brondsema Says:

    You didn’t really explain it very well. What is the tactile feedback exactly? Is it hard to push sometimes? When? Why? What does it do with the network connection?

  4. Anthony Quartararo Says:

    Interesting research, but unless and until you tie the user’s actions (ie. turning on an appliance or light that consumes electricity) to the user’s utility bill (ie. higher costs at peak times for many devices consuming electricity simultaneously) and show this increase in utility costs to the user (tactile or otherwise) in-situ, then I fear you won’t have the success you imagine. As demonstrated repeatedly (eg. high gas prices foster conservation, walking, biking, carpooling, etc.) the bottom line is the bottom line and unless you make that instantly apparent to the lowest common denominator (Adults with kindergarten atention spans and math skills), then you will miss the market and the goals will not be realized.

  5. Jamie Says:

    I agree with Dave (above) – please let us know how the data from the network connection is used by the brake pad to give the user tactile feedback.

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