Online portal for visualising the impact of everyday actions on our demand for energy

06 July, 2022

Jose Luis Ramirez-Mendiola

Reading time: 5 minutes

Jose Luis Ramirez-Mendiola discusses the motivations and potential applications for the new Energy Demand Flexibility and the Rhythms of Everyday Life tool launched this week.

When it comes to demand for energy, and people’s attitude towards it, one of the main problems is that energy has become invisible, and largely taken for granted in wealthier countries, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so difficult to get sustainability messages across.

In this digital age, whenever we think of potential solutions to some of our problems, we’ve all (probably) found ourselves thinking: ‘surely there is an app for that’.

Well, I am pleased to say that there now is indeed an app, Energy Demand Flexibility and the Rhythms of Everyday Life, that allows you to see for yourself – and show to others – how the activities we engage in on a daily basis have an impact on our demand for gas and electricity, and the cost of providing us with these. Go check it out!

This app is the result of an initiative lead by the CREDS Flexibility theme with a view to supporting the efforts at expanding CREDS research impact beyond its typical audiences through the creation of more widely digestible material that translates some of our research findings into actionable advice; once the material is there, it can be readily distributed to and by other CREDS researchers as well as project partners and members of the energy demand research network.

The aim of this project was to provide accessible, user-friendly visualisations that show the ways in which activities impact energy demand. These visualisations condense a wealth of data from a variety of sources into stand-alone tools; these tools allow users to explore how everyday lives unfold over the course of a day, and what impacts they have on the amount of energy required to provide us with the services we have become used to having access to.

To better understand the motivation behind creating this online resource, I’ve decided to provide a couple of examples of the issues that need to be tackled in order to ensure a prompt transition to a more sustainable energy system. In each of these instances, the visualisation tools offered in the online portal could potentially be applied to the creation of strategies aiming at enhancing public knowledge and improving the communication process.

Energy has become invisible

Problem: Energy has become ‘invisible’ over the years and there is a general lack of knowledge and awareness about the impact of everyday activities and choices on energy demand and the grid.

Cause: Last century’s paradigm for dealing with energy consumers: Encouraging people not to pay attention to their energy use, take energy for granted, and use as much energy as possible so that energy providers can cash in more profits (especially at peak time).

Solution: Develop tools that can assist us in reversing this process; highlighting the role of energy in providing us with all those services that we have come to associate with ‘a good lifestyle’, and showing evidence of how it is that what people do has a direct impact on energy demand, prices and carbon emissions. In addition to showing us the impact of our activities, the visuals also show us the opportunities for shifting energy-intensive activities away from those busy periods of the day and into those periods where there is potential to be more flexible, thus reducing the strain on our power systems.

Energy demand can’t be seamlessly shifted around

Problem: Policy-makers have been led to believe that demand can seamlessly be shifted around in time ‘willy-nilly’, and that everyone will respond equally to – or be equally affected by – the same incentives and/or penalties.

Cause: Decades of systematic oversimplification of the role of the demand side in keeping energy systems in balance, as well as overestimating the potential flexibility afforded by ‘traditional’ power generation sources – such as gas power plants – which in principle can be ramped up or down as needed.

Solution: Highlight, on the one hand, that demand is very tightly interwoven with what people do and the way they do it, and so, any long-lasting change needs to be rooted in this concept. And, on the other hand, highlighting the need to part ways with the traditional approaches to policy and energy systems analysis that rely on generalizations and oversimplifications about the impacts of policies across the population.

Contemporary data sources allow for more targeted interventions. There is absolutely nothing to lose in trying to do that, and much to gain from taking advantage of this fact.

On that same note, and in addition to what’s already been said, this should also highlight the importance of keeping alive and further support the initiatives and institutions that collect such data – with a view to making it available to energy researchers so that we can keep our insights up-to-date and perhaps even avert problems before they come to be.

Energy use needs to be more visible

Some people say that ultimately technology and automation will be the solution to all of our problems and we don’t need to worry about energy demand reduction and flexibility. But should technology really be our main or only focus?

There is no doubt that technology will play a huge role in supporting the transition from contemporary power systems to the ‘smart’ and hyper-flexible systems we are aiming for. The advent of smart meters has already made a great impact when it comes to increasing awareness about our energy consumption by constantly feeding you information about how much gas and electricity you are using at any given time.

However, the rate at which this transition needs to happen requires us to double down on our efforts to make energy ‘more visible’ in our everyday lives and improve our collective knowledge of how the system works and, for instance, why it is that higher energy prices reflect not only that more ‘units of energy’ – think kW – are needed, but also that, in the case of electric power, the efforts required to keep the grid ‘alive and well’ increase proportionally with demand.

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