At this fall’s Chicago “Surge Summit” event, hosted by the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), local energy efficiency advocates got to hear from the fascinating fount of knowledge that is Professor Lynne Kiesling, an economist from Purdue University. Dr. Kiesling — arriving by bicycle, of course — illuminated the many ways that technology has changed our relationship with energy over the years — including how we interact with our electric bills. Here are some of our favorite takeaways from her thought-provoking talk:
#1 – Electricity was the iPhone of the 1880s
It’s hard for us to imagine the transformation our lives and communities underwent as a result of electrification. Not only the new conveniences — but also major paradigm shifts, an outpouring of follow-on inventions, and massive new industries that popped up overnight. Eventually, the Wild West atmosphere surrounding the electric industry, where investors made a mad dash to make a profit, gave way to stability, low prices, and regulation — that is, until the oil crisis in the 1970s. The need for alternative or lower-cost energy options became instantly apparent — and in the 1980s, new technologies did help diversify and open up electricity generation.
#2 – We’re in the middle of another energy revolution
The 1990s digital revolution wasn’t just about AOL and Netscape Navigator. The rise of digital technology heralded major improvements to our energy system, too. The first big change was smart pricing plans — whereby energy companies could text consumers to let them know about upcoming price shifts. This kicked off research and development on the plethora of smart and real-time pricing programs now available throughout the U.S. And the results are striking: a 2014 study showed that customers with a digital display (like a Nest) reduced their energy consumption by three standard deviations. As Dr. Kiesling put it, that’s “a big whopping difference.”
#3 – Saving money actually makes us more energy conscious, too
Better yet, consumers with access to real-time pricing information – for instance, a flashing red light on your digital display when the price is high — also save energy even outside of high price periods. The more we’re asked to consider our energy bill, the more we reflect on actually reducing our consumption. It’s not all about self-interest — and better understanding this behavior means that we can harness all of our better selves for future energy-saving initiatives. One of the next frontiers will be communicating with consumers about their “energy mix” — the sources of their energy — so we can each choose how much of our power we’d like to come from renewables like solar and wind. In the short term, we may have to weigh higher prices for these sources against our desire to be good stewards of the earth. But, in the long-term, going green, and saving green, will likely be a win-win for consumers across the board.
Want to learn more about Dr. Lynne Kiesling’s research and work? Visit her website at https://knowledgeproblem.com.