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.