‘We are energy nerds’

03 May, 2024 - 00:05 0 Views
‘We are energy nerds’

eBusiness Weekly

When Kevin Wood’s local utility started offering customers money in exchange for using less electricity, the father of one had a battle on his hands.

Wood, who lives in Hampshire in southern England, was keen on realizing savings while alleviating peak energy demand. But some things — like teenagers — are even harder to manage than maxed-out electricity grids.

“We tried saying, ‘Look, let’s not use your Xbox for an hour,’” Wood says. “[It worked] once. But we’ve agreed not to do that again.”

Diplomacy is just one part of Wood’s home-energy setup. He has solar panels, a battery and an electric car. A heat pump is next, once the gas boiler taps out. But installing all of that tech was just stage one — now Wood can’t stop paying attention to it.

He tracks the cheapest time to use electricity and schedules his family’s washing, cooking and charging to match. “I am quite proud of the fact that I’m going to be net negative on my electricity,” Wood says. “I’m actually giving back.”

Wood is part of a new group of super-proactive, super-engaged electricity customers. Solar panels, home batteries and other energy-efficient devices are cheaper and more accessible than ever.

Higher power bills are making everyone more aware of their electricity use, and utilities are passing on price signals in the form of cheaper rates when demand is low and pricier rates when demand is high.

Together, those factors are creating a new class of consumer: Call them the home energy nerds. It’s a niche for now, but baked into the nerd experience are lessons for everyone, and for utilities.

The relationship between utility and customer is usually a one-way street: The utility offers a price, the consumer pays it and uses the energy supplied.

But as power grids move away from fossil fuels, matching demand and supply is becoming more challenging.

Utilities are pushing customers to optimize their energy use according to the grid’s needs and around periods of peak demand, while customers are starting to supplement the grid with devices that generate and store electricity at home.

“The decisions and actions that people take as consumers have more impact on the energy system,” says Marie Claire Brisbois, a senior lecturer in energy policy at the University of Sussex.

So how do you make the leap from energy customer to energy nerd? Many people describe a small nudge — like shifting washing times to take advantage of cheaper power prices, or adding insulation to improve energy-efficiency — as the first step.

For John Smillie, 37, it was when his family’s old gas furnace broke down in 2018. Replacing it with a newer model spurred Smillie to also upgrade the windows and insulation in his Indiana home.

“That’s when I started thinking, ‘What are all the next steps here?’” he says. The family added a heat pump water heater and eventually a heat pump.

By his calculation, their household carbon dioxide emissions dropped by almost 50% between 2022 and 2023, while their total energy usage is around a third of what it was.

Once the tech is installed, energy nerds say there’s no going back. Watching the free electricity flow into your house — and making optimal use of it — is nothing short of addictive.

“If anybody says to you they get solar and then they just leave it I’d be amazed,” says Diane Patmore, a 50-year-old IT worker and mother of two from Northamptonshire in the UK. “I think certainly in the first couple of months, you’re obsessed.”

Technical know-how isn’t required; neither is much math. For Chris Morgan, 35, a church operations manager in Durham in the north of England, three is the magic number — 3 kilowatts.

That’s how much his home battery can discharge at any one time, so Morgan’s family of four tries to keep their energy consumption under that cap. They use the grid to charge the battery and their EV between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., when electricity is cheap.

During the day, they try to use the stored energy instead of expensive peak-time power from their utility.

Meanwhile, energy from the rooftop solar panels goes straight into the grid at a higher price than they paid for power overnight. Effectively, the family buys low and sells high.

The main clash comes at dinner time, which calls for both the electric kettle (3kw) and the electric oven (2kw).

“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we just [let the kettle finish] before we put the oven on so we don’t have to import from the grid,” Morgan says.

Morgan’s nudge into home-energy obsession was getting a Nissan electric car in June 2021. “I hadn’t really ever considered how much energy I used before having an EV,” he says. “It wasn’t a thing that ever crossed my mind.”

Electric cars are the gateway for many energy nerds. For Robert Wehr, 62, who lives in a rural part of northern Germany, getting a Volkswagen e-Golf in 2020 led to solar panels, then a smart meter to track electricity use.

He and his wife now think hard about when to charge their EV to take advantage of the free power the panels generate, and monitor other appliances almost as closely.

In addition to saving consumers money — and piquing their curiosity — this small-scale version of what utilities call “load flexing” could be key to managing a more intermittent energy grid, says Mike Fell, a senior research fellow at the UCL Energy Institute in London. Optimising demand could also reduce the need to spend taxpayer dollars building out new power sources.

Online communities of energy nerds have sprung up, offering a place to swap tips. In the UK, heat pump owners flock to a website called Heat Pump Monitor to compare their COP, or coefficient of performance.

It’s essentially a measure of how many units of heat a heat pump is producing per unit of power going in — the higher the number, the more efficient the device. A 7kw Vaillant Arotherm+ heat pump in Mytchett, Surrey, is currently the leader in efficiency. With a COP of 4.6 averaged over the past year, it’s at the very top end of what manufacturers say users can expect. − Bloomberg.

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