When attempting to increase energy efficiency in buildings, the single most influential change you can make is to the behavior of the user. This is not about changing behaviors that will cause discomfort or inconvenience, huge gains can be made by simply making people aware of the energy they waste. There is no need to spend time and money on advanced artificial intelligence systems learn and to preempt your every move when providing humans with the information will achieve the same or more.
Users can sense their environments, know their schedule, identify sources of discomfort or distraction, even foretell their future moods better than any smart occupancy tracking system but they know relatively little about their energy consumption. Rather than teach a computer to understand human behavior so it can identify energy inefficiencies, why not teach a human to understand how they consume energy so they can identify potential savings. It seems that this simple idea is gaining more traction with a wide range of investors recently.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup Sense, whose intelligent home energy monitor provides real-time insights into energy and device activity in the home, recently announced the close of an $18M Series B financing led by Schneider Electric, along with previous investors Prelude Ventures, Capricorn Investment Group, Shell Ventures, Energy Impact Partners, and iRobot. This brings Sense's funding to date to $38.6M.
“Prelude and Capricorn are venture groups with a strong focus on climate change (so care about the energy and carbon reduction potential of Sense). Shell, iRobot, and Energy Impact Partners are companies (or venture groups funded by companies) who care about the evolution of the smart home and future energy systems. And now Schneider adds to this as a major provider of electrical equipment throughout the world,” says Michael Phillips, Sense co-founder and CEO.
Sense's machine learning technology measures power one million times per second, identifying devices in the home based on their electrical signals and providing homeowners with insights on individual device behaviour. Their mission is not just energy efficiency but to keep homeowners informed about what's happening in their homes; helping them make their homes safer, more efficient and more reliable. The company says that customers often use their system to check what time their kids get home, monitoring their home appliances, or determining whether they left appliances running, as well as identifying how to reduce their energy costs.
Despite its energy saving potential, Sense does not pitch itself as an energy efficiency tool, rather “the real-time aspect is the key thing for engagement. You can open this app on your phone and see what’s happening right now in your house,” says Phillps. This has helped drive “really good engagement numbers” among the tens of thousands of Sense owners out there, he added. According to the company, approximately half are still using the service at least once a week, and of those, the average user is checking it 12 times per week.
“We want to further engage those engaged users” in energy efficiency, Phillips said. “Once they’ve used the app to check if their garage door is open or their oven is on, we’re hoping they’ll trust us when we say, 'Your air conditioner needs maintenance,'” something their technology is able to identify by tracking the energy signatures of appliances flowing through a home’s central power line through a process called energy disaggregation.
Sense’s home energy monitor costs $299, certainly at the higher end of the market, and requires installation of induction clamps on a home’s electrical mains to pull the sub-second data that it needs. The high cost comes with greater accuracy, however. The system can identify up to 25 different loads in real time, such as garage doors opening or closing, refrigerator or air conditioner compressors failing, as well as a range of appliances being used. That’s far beyond what is possible with lower-cost disaggregation derived from smart meters or other sampled data.
If such detailed electricity usage data was available to the massess we would no doubt make a huge dent in our energy waste as a society. That’s what makes Sense’s recent funding round so interesting, the inclusion of Schneider Electric as the lead investor. The French firm is a world leader in the manufacture of embedded building electricity infrastructure. Low-voltage electrical equipment, such as circuit breakers, switches, energy storage, and industrial control systems. If Sense’s monitoring technology were built into a building’s infrastructure it would be at the fraction of the cost.
“We are doing this with a retrofit that goes inside your electrical panel today, because that’s the only way to get the signals we need,” said Phillips. “But the processing we do ought to be built into the core infrastructure. It could live either in the panel or the utility meter — these are the two places that power comes into your house.”
“Once it’s built into the infrastructure, that cost goes away,” he continued. “The incremental cost of silicon, of computation and sampling, we’re riding projections that these things are going down to zero, essentially. If we can trade off a bit of computation for a bit of energy, that’s a good tradeoff in the long run.”
When attempting to increase energy efficiency in buildings, the single most influential change you can make is to the behavior of the user. The first step of that change is providing the user with the information they need to make energy-saving decisions. Whether through energy disaggregation or another way, building energy signature tracking technology into all homes could be a turning point for residential energy efficiency.