The Negawatts Project: Changing the Paradigm of Family Energy Consumption

Friday, 06 August 2010

This is the first of several in-depth explorations of MIT-Portugal research projects to be published here over the coming months

Managing electricity consumption at a family level is a necessary paradigm shift that might be facilitated by smart grids and smart metering. The future implementation of smart grids and the resulting evolution of the market towards more personalized business models will presume a more active role for the consumer in managing personal energy consumption. For consumers to take this more active role in managing their electricity consumption, they need tools that will enable them to make rational decisions based on a greater awareness of each component of their home’s energy use.


A Yello Strom smart meter in a home in OeirasHelping families to make sound, sustainable decisions about their energy consumption is the goal of the Negawatts Project, developed in the framework of the MIT-Portugal Program by Joana Abreu, a Sustainable Energy Systems PhD student. This 18-month project is a partnership involving MIT, the German energy company Yello Strom, Portugal Agenda XXI, the Office of Municipal Development of the city of Oeiras, the Institute Superior Técnico and Wee Solutions.

Involving families in rational energy management

The Negawatts Project was the first in a series of experiments that seek to build families’ awareness of their energy consumption habits and the energy used by appliances at home. The project installed smart meters in more than a dozen homes in Oeiras and the host families have access to an online application that allows them to track their energy consumption through Google Power Meter in real time and see the effect of turning off or on a particular appliance, television, or other device. The application gives a history of consumption every 15 minutes, allowing consumers to compare electricity consumption data by the day, week or month.

The research includes the development of different algorithms that analyse the consumption patterns of the families as a way to provide them adequate feedback to make changes that enable them to contibute to optimize their consumption and see resulting gains on their electricity bills.

Google PowerMeter application used by Negawatts families

Project dimensions and the role of the community

The project’s current research will identify and analyze the obstacles to large-scale implementation of smart meters in the residential sector, and the implications of smart meter deployment for demand-side management. Researchers will explore consumption patterns and estimate the movable components of energy consumption—that is, those non-essential uses that could easily be deferred to nighttime or other low-demand periods, based on a direct analysis of consumption curves. This will allow future development of approaches that seek to modify specific consumption behaviors. The project also seeks to model consumption behaviors and evaluate extrapolation errors for larger-scale implementations.

A project like Negawatts is only possible to put together with community involvement. The Oeiras municipal government has played a key role in identifying and involving citizens to help advance this project, overcoming the initial resistance that families might feel about participating in an activity that enters their homes.

One of the Oeiras pilot families is that of Cristina Garrett, an environmental engineer in the Office of Municipal Development in Oeiras, who had a Yello Strom smart meter installed in her house.

Negawatts participant Cristina Garrett

Underscoring the human component of this project, Cristina Garrett noted that the information from the smart meter can have different levels of influence on families, since “managing expenses is different from person to person and from family to family.” The ability to have detailed information through Google Power Meter, allowing such insights as “seeing and measuring the energy use by a particular electrical appliance” in real time, had made her family more aware of certain things such as the “stand-by” energy used by some appliances, and by the changing electric rates during the day.

Sustained impact

The Negawatts Project also seeks a longer-term, broader impact for businesses, as they too can take advantage of better information to plan fuel savings based on deferring consumption to avoid peak demand periods.

This enhanced availability of consumption data as a decision tool will also facilitate the emergence of new personalized business models, allowing consumers to adapt their needs to variable market rates.

With the combination of all the knowledge generated within this effort this project hopes to contribute to a paradigm change in consumer behavior, helping to make consumers more responsible in managing their own electricity use, and to enable the design of new business models and effective energy efficiency driven policies.

Negawatts within the overall MIT Portugal Research Agenda

The Negawatts project falls within the MIT-Portugal Sustainable Energy and Transportation Systems (SETS) Targeted Application Area, which is aimed at developing smart energy and transportation systems that may be more sustainable in the long run having in consideration issues like life cycle analysis and overall impacts in both environemntal, economical and social aspects. Within the SETS Targeted Application Area, one of the key research areas is the development of smart energy systems, in which it is envisioned that in a near future every person will be able to act not only as a energy consumer but as an interactive actor that may sell electricity to the grid, under a systemic and dynamic approach. This new energy supply paradigm will democratize energy consumption, opening the space for the creation of new business models based on supplying energy services (like heat, cold or electricity). The Negawatts project is also a test case for implementation of smart metering in the Azores as part of the MPP Green Islands initiative.