To improve energy efficiency, grid operators have traditionally focused on the supply side—for example, by switching to sustainable power sources or insulating power lines. It has been harder for them to engage with consumers and make any meaningful dent in the demand side.
But smart grids are changing the way consumers interact with municipal resources. Now, utilities can share usage data with consumers themselves. With this wealth of data at their fingertips, consumers can decide how best to reduce their own consumption.
So far, programs that offer this kind of insight have relied on the information itself to motivate participants. But even when energy consumption is monitored and shared across an entire community, there is little reason for its members to stay engaged long enough to change their habits.
According to one project, the key may lie in the art of incentivization. Mustafa Alparslan Zehir, a graduate researcher at Istanbul Technical University who specializes in grid engineering, points out that large-scale demand-side efforts to promote energy-efficient behaviors have mostly failed to keep consumers engaged for more than a few months. These programs “don’t motivate ongoing participation,” says Zehir. “People leave after they’ve consumed all the content.” This is a problem, he says, because participants who stick with a program longer are more likely to make long-term behavioral changes.
Now, through an international project called GReSBAS, Zehir and his colleagues are trying to persuade consumers to reduce their energy use with the help of a unique gamified platform. Based in Istanbul, GReSBAS encourages participants at the project’s demonstration sites in Turkey and Portugal to use a real-time platform to track their daily energy consumption. Participants compete in household-, building-, and neighborhood-wide contests, and set their own goals and records for energy use over time.
That the project originated in Istanbul is no coincidence. Turkey’s largest city has suffered from public embarrassment in recent years thanks to the inconsistent performance of its power grid, which is frequently taxed beyond capacity at high-traffic times of day, among other problems.
Turkey is also beholden to the energy policy decisions of the European Commission, whose 2030 energy goals include a sharp increase in renewable energy consumption. In 2015, the Commission’s ERA-NET SG+ initiative published its first call for transnational research groups to apply for funding for innovative approaches to smart grid engineering. In 2016, the team behind Project GresBAS (which stands for Grid Responsive Society through Building Automation Systems) won nearly 600,000 euros [PDF] to begin work on their demonstration sites in Istanbul and Porto, Portugal.
The project’s industrial partner, Makel, an Istanbul electrical supplier, gives GResBAS direct remote-control access to its consumer data. Participants then use the project’s mobile app to monitor their energy usage and to make choices about their consumption, guided by recommendations from the game. The GResBAS middleware feeds each user’s data into digital displays to show customers their flexible energy loads—meaning the amount of energy their appliances consume throughout the day—broken down by time period and type of appliance.
The app then recommends behavioral changes that can minimize both consumption and cost, such as consolidating laundry loads or only running the dishwasher at night, when the grid isn’t over-taxed. In addition to the monetary savings that participants reap, the program offers game-like rewards for efficient consumption choices, designed to help consumers stay motivated.
Those choices are essential to the project team’s vision of a truly engaging concept. Rather than offering general advice to every participant, the GResBAS platform gives users the opportunity to meet smaller goals tailored to their own habits, suggesting what time of day to use certain appliances, for example, or what settings to choose. “It’s like any strategic game,” explains Zehir. “You have options and you are free to choose.”
The gameplay aspect of the program rewards better choices with in-game advancements, badges, and public recognition. Users can compare themselves to neighbors at their testing site and form teams to achieve goals as a community, for which they might receive badges that their teammates and competitors can see. Players are also invited to beat their personal efficiency records each month and to participate consistently in order to move to higher levels, where tasks are even more challenging.
So far, the results are promising. The first pilot program in Istanbul ran over 70 days in the first half of 2018. In a recent newsletter, the GResBAS research team reported that the normalized results from that demo program suggest potential annual savings of 53 euros—equivalent to an average monthly energy bill—and carbon emissions equivalent to burning up to 40 trees for fuel per participant.
Beyond that, Zehir says extending the program into new smart-grid-enabled cities would require surprisingly little investment in infrastructure. “Regulators, policymakers, industrial companies—we’ve got to give them an idea of what they can achieve,” he says. “The cost is not prohibitive. They should just see that it works."