Department of Energy

ARPA-E & Stanford University Explore the Hows and Whys of Energy Use

May 25, 2011

You are here

Members of Girl Scout Troop #61373 from Santa Clara, CA create an instructional video for home energy use. | Photo courtesy of Troop Leader Sylvia Kennedy

Members of Girl Scout Troop #61373 from Santa Clara, CA create an instructional video for home energy use. | Photo courtesy of Troop Leader Sylvia Kennedy

The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) is known for sponsoring high-risk, high-reward ideas on the cutting edge of energy research and development -- such as a novel manufacturing process that that will reduce the cost of solar panels by 50 percent, battery technology that will allow energy storage for multiple hours on the power grid, and biofuels without photosynthesis. But one ARPA-E project is a little bit different than the rest -- rather than working toward a specific technological breakthrough, researchers at Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and H-STAR Institute are seeking a breakthrough on the human behavioral side of energy use. In other words, how do people make decisions about energy? What compels their behavior? And how can energy be used more efficiently without adversely affecting people’s lifestyles?

Stanford’s team -- comprised of researchers from communications, engineering, economics, psychology, education, medicine and computer science --  is combining behavioral approaches, product design, computation and technology to encourage people to be more energy efficient at home, with a long-term goal of reducing average residential energy use by over 20 percent. This interdisciplinary group of researchers will leverage the existing smart meter infrastructure to quantify the effectiveness of their behavioral programs for reducing residential electricity use.

These behavioral initiatives range from building a computational platform to gathering data from energy consumers that will provide personalized diagnostics and recommendations to incorporating interactive media (such as mobile devices and multiplayer games), incentives and community programs. Most of these programs will incorporate the sensor data directly into the program. One example, led by Drs. Tom Robinson and Hilary Schaffer Boudet of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Dr. Nicole Ardoin of the School of Education, deemed a ‘community intervention,’ involves 30 Girl Scouts of Northern California troops in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Stanford team is teaching the Girl Scouts about Home Energy Use and Transportation, and the Girl Scouts are creating their own instructional video for a badge. One mother reported back to the Stanford team that after applying recommendations from her daughter’s video, the family reduced its electrical usage by 30 percent compared to the previous month -- for a total of $167 in savings.

If successful, the Stanford team’s research will result in publicly available websites, a collection of high-resolution data for disaggregation and other technology platforms that will incorporate the team’s findings to significantly reduce and shift energy use. Furthermore, the team expects to provide improved demand-side response models that will incorporate human behavior to inform policy decisions. Finally, Stanford hopes to demonstrate that Americans can realize energy efficiency savings with little disruption to their daily lives, and even with enthusiasm.