But this week an alliance that includes the intriguing combination of Opower and Facebook offers promise that this futuristic concept may not be so far off into the future.
The democratization of energy gives consumers the ability to take charge of their electricity production and use via new technologies, much the way they’ve gained control over information flow via the Internet. Think rooftop solar panels and plug-in electric vehicles, which together give you the ability to not only make your own energy, but also store it and sell it. Combine these technologies with smart meters, dynamic pricing, virtual net metering, solar gardens, home energy displays and Internet-enabled appliances and you have an electricity system that looks far different than today’s. Large energy producers and operators now control the electric grid, but a democratized grid distributes this control to the rest of us. You and I, in essence, become the power plant.
The democratization of energy, also called the energy internet, holds a lot of appeal in a world where we feel like victims of larger forces that control our economic fate. When oil prices spike, we helplessly take another financial hit.
The energy internet promises to help us be more energy efficient, save money, in some cases make money, and enjoy more comfort and automation in our homes.
However, so far, consumers haven’t shown much interest in taking charge of their energy use, even in fundamental ways. Perhaps this is because the concept of energy democratization seems remote and speculative – to those who think about it at all. I’m reminded of the nascent days of the Internet, when futurists made lofty claims that it would change banking, shopping and the workplace, and even revolutionize politics worldwide through an inexorable flow of information. At the time, most of us still saw the computer as little more than a difficult-to-use word processing machine.
Apple Computer changed that by making the computer more user-friendly. Opower (and similar companies) is the Apple of the energy internet, in that it’s figuring out ways to give energy efficiency technologies consumer appeal. Opower does this by tapping into our social instincts and playing on our sense of community, camaraderie and even competition to incite us to pursue energy efficiency in our homes.
But the work is being done community by community, so it’s slow going. So far Opower has sent its home energy report – a key ingredient of its method – to 3 million households. How to speed it up? That’s where Facebook comes into play, with its 800 million worldwide users all meeting and socializing in one big virtual spot.
Opower intends to use Facebook to set up friendly competitions among households. If yours is one of the 60 US utilities that already partners with Opower, you’ll be able to download your home’s actual energy use from Facebook, compare it against similar households and chart your progress with regular updates from your utility. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the third leg of the partnership, will provide environmental information.
Opower envisions social networking groups and communities forming around their new energy knowledge. These groups could have a significant impact on the success or defeat of energy efficiency products and businesses. Think about how fast video gets passed around Facebook of cats doing cute things. That could instead be word of a hot, new energy product. Or conversely news could go viral of the light bulb that burns out too quickly or the appliance that fails to live up to its promise. Energy efficiency companies will need to be on their toes.
The partnership plans to launch the new venture early next year in the Chicago area through Commonwealth Edison. It’s fair to assume that many will ‘like’ it.
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.