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NSF Essay

May 15, 2011

I also applied for an NSF Fellowship. I got an Honorable Mention – which was cool.

I wanted to post my essay on my proposed research because I’m so impressed by how similar it is to what I will actually be doing!

Our current electrical grid is a relic of the 1960s, when electricity production was largely a local affair.   Today power companies often move electricity vast distances in a competitive market and new intermittent generation sources such as wind and solar put an extra burden on an already over-utilized network (Schewe, 2006). As states and utilities begin to move forward with developing new utility-sized power generation sources, it is clear that it will be important to rethink the way that power is transferred from the plant to the consumer. “Smart grid” is an umbrella term for a network of metering, control schemes, and communication protocols embedded into the power transmission infrastructure. This type of system would allow utilities to more closely monitor customer power use for increased feedback, as well as heighten control of power flow through improved load management schemes. Smart grid technology will allow utilities to reduce consumers’ home electricity bills, as well as peak load, by distributing power usage to off-peak times. While some pilot programs have been implemented, there has been mixed success largely due to an inattention to behavioral and social factors involved in energy usage (ACEEE, 2010). I intend to use my strong interdisciplinary background to explore demand-side technologies and programs to reduce energy load. In particular, I am interested in studying consumer motivators and barriers associated with smart grid technology using social science methods.

Energy efficiency and smart grid technology can reduce overall load and facilitate the transition to renewable generation sources by reducing required capacity. This transition in the power industry has become an increasingly urgent matter. According to a 2007 IPCC report, the years between 1995 and 2006 have ranked among the warmest years on record – particularly at higher northern latitudes. The effects of rising temperatures have ranged from reduced Arctic habitat to ocean acidification to increased cyclone activity to the early arrival of spring, which has impacted the abundance and life cycles of natural systems. To make matters worse, scientists do not expect these trends to slow down. Annual emissions of carbon dioxide grew 80% between 1970 and 2004 (IPCC, 2007).

One of the primary sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels used for power production (IPCC, 2007). Besides the discussed environmental concerns associated with global warming and climate change, there are also economic and security concerns regarding fossil fuel dependence. Since 2005, oil prices have been rising dramatically. Most estimates believe that “peak oil”, the time when our consumption of oil surpasses our ability to find new sources, has already passed or will in the near future. As the largest energy consumer, the USA accounts for approximately a quarter of worldwide energy usage alone. We are completely dependent on imports from other nations to meet our energy demands. Yet, many countries that are top oil exporters also have highly volatile political situations and are the sites of major conflicts, putting out oil supplies in jeopardy (Asif and Muneer, 2007). These factors combined with the environmental concerns make moving away from fossil fuels an obvious choice.

There is an increasing interest in using social science methods to explore energy issues in order to enhance the value of technological improvements (ACEEE, 2010; Lutzenhiser, 1993). Changing consumer behavior could have a significant impact on reducing overall peak load and increasing grid efficiency. Studies have shown huge variability in energy consumption patterns, even when normalized for housing characteristics and appliances (Lutzenhiser, 1993). According to a recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEEE), improved feedback regarding energy consumption has the ability to reduce consumption by up to 12% in a well-designed program. A well-designed program must go beyond products such as data displays and web interfaces and also include services such as tailored recommendations down to the appliance level. By engaging consumers to make changes in small steps, there is a higher likelihood that they will participate in the program. ACEEE found that the use of social norms was highly influential in changing consumers’ behavior, yet few programs have taken advantage of this (ACEEE, 2010). There is a strong need for identifying social incentives for changing behavior. By enhancing a sense of personal obligation, it may be easier to effect a change in consumer behavior. A significant percentage of consumers entertain misconceptions regarding how the power industry works and methods for reducing energy use. Habits play a large part in energy-related behavior. In fact, micro-behavioral research has shown that individuals have highly patterned energy-use, although those patterns may differ significantly from their neighbors’ (Lutzenhiser, 1993).

I intend to use metering to study specific individuals’ and families’ energy habits and follow-up with interviews to determine how their beliefs and conceptions coincide with their actual energy use. By identifying the frameworks that consumers are using to gauge and control their energy usage, I will be able to identify ways for utilities and policy makers to communicate with their constituents. There will likely be a large education component to the implementation of smart grid technology. At present, approximately 70% of Americans have never heard of the “smart grid” (EcoAlign, 2010). This research will be highly relevant to the design of effective smart grid meters. By encouraging consumers to change their energy consumption habits, this technology will go a long way in making renewable energy more economically feasible and reduce national carbon emissions.

I hope to conduct this research with [a group at a random school]. By developing a broad understanding of environmental tools, I will be better able to identify methods for imparting an understanding of power generation and energy use to consumers. In turn, this information will be useful for policy makers and utilities interested in improving the effectiveness of smart grid technology.

Works Cited:

Asif, M. and T. Muneer. “Energy supply, its demand and security issues for developed and emerging economies.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 11 (2007) 1388-1413.

EcoAlign, Wimberly, Jamie (ed). “EcoPinion: Separating Smart Grid from Smart Meters? Consumer Perceptions and Expectations of Smart Grid.” Survey Report 8, May 2010.

Lutzenhiser, Loren. “Social and Behavioral Aspects of Energy Use.” Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 18 (1993) 247-89.

Martinez-Ehrhardt, Karen, Donnelly, Kat A., and John A. Laitner. “Advanced Metering Initiatives and Residential Feedback Programs: A Meta-Review for Household Electricity-Saving Opportunities.” ACEEE, Report Number E105, June 2010.

Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (Eds.). “Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 2007.

Schewe, Philip F. The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World. Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

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