Sunday, November 06, 2011
Social Sites See Games as Key to Power Grid Savings
Can Vasillis Nikolopoulos do what Larry Page, Steve Ballmer, and John Chambers could not? That trio of tech titans has thrown in the towel when it comes to harnessing computer innovation to lower our energy consumption.
Meanwhile, Nikolopoulos, a spunky entrepreneur based in Greece and co-founder of the energy usage monitoring firm Intelen, believes differently.
“There is a huge opportunity here. In an Athens pilot, we drove energy savings of 35 percent,” says Nikolopoulos.
He just may know something the US CEOs don’t. So may Mark Zuckerberg (more on him later).
The core idea in Silicon Valley has been that by using powerful tools -- WiFi, RFID, and the like -- to build out a so-called smart grid, it will be easy to know how much energy a home or business uses and then to find ways to reduce it.
Just one problem: In a down economy, willingness to spring for energy-saving technologies -- such as solar panels or upgrades of attic insulation -- is challenged. And willingness to spend on energy monitoring tools is even scarcer. When you are struggling to pay a utility bill, spending more -- even when it's associated with a promise of eventual cost reductions -- is a tough sell. And this is not changing soon. (Witness the Google-Microsoft-Cisco surrenders.)
Execs on the front line admit as much. Honeywell Automation and Control Solution CEO Roger Fradin recently told India’s Economic Times: "In all honesty, I know smart grids make good press but I think it will take 10 years for it to become a meaningful part of my business... Everybody talks about it, but very few companies are actually doing anything about it."
Nikolopoulos gets that difficulty, but he thinks it will be easy to persuade us to play games where points are earned for cutting energy use. And it gets easier still when the game occurs on the social Web. Call this Energy Efficiency 2.0, says Nikolopoulos; previous efforts have gotten the order of things reversed.
Typically, the effort involved encouraging high-tech investment that would drive behavior change, he said, but that has not worked. What he preaches is using social networks -- at little or no cost -- to drive behavior change that may in turn trigger willingness to invest in greater energy reduction.
Think of this as Farmville, or Mafia Wars, except with positive social benefits involved.
This is where Mark Zuckerberg enters the fray: Facebook recently announced it has joined forces with a firm called Opower to unveil a new app that will turn energy savings into a game. The app is tentatively slated to launch in the first quarter of 2012.
Facebook won’t be the only player in the attempt to drive energy efficiencies via social nets. Nikolopoulos, for instance, says his company, Intelen, is busily developing similar games that he hopes soon to pilot in Boston and San Francisco.
Other players are on the horizon -- such as a startup aptly named Efficiency 2.0 -- because suddenly it seems a solution to this longstanding problem just may be within reach.
And it will be a solution implemented by consumers playing games. Not by technology giants.
Says Nikolopoulos, “In a social net, you will be able to compare your usage with your neighbors, with quick glances at graphs that we can update continuously. This will provide real motivation. People will want to save energy.”
Are there potential problems? Nikolopoulos acknowledges a hot button is privacy; just about anybody could tell if you are home or away, in the office or not, when energy use graphs are online. That needs to be addressed -- probably by camouflaging player identities -- but Nikolopoulos says those are nits that will be picked.
The exciting bottom line is that if these social gurus are right, we are on the cusp of seeing significant energy reductions -- just because of games people play. “When we harness the social network effect, we will see very good results,” says Nikolopoulos.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.