Smart Power with Gamification

Feature Article | March 19, 2014 by Nicolas A. Zeitler

Photo: TUM/KIT

Georg Hackenberg, Martin Alexander Neumann and Yong Ding (left to right) have developed the concept of an app where utility companies place a bet with their customers to motivate them to use electricity at unusual times. (Photo: TUM/KIT/grasundsterne)

Let’s hope the spin cycle doesn’t wake the neighbors. This thought could worry price-conscious energy users in the future if the doctorate students Martin Alexander Neumann (28) and Yong Ding (31), both from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), and Georg Hackenberg (30), from the Technische Universität München (TUM) in Germany, have their say. Their idea is for utility companies to reward consumers who don’t use their washing machines at peak times. The three up-and-coming scientists have developed the concept of an app where the utility companies place a bet with their customers to motivate them to use electricity at unusual times. In its Utility of Tomorrow Innovation Contest, which attracted more than 60 entries, SAP has now awarded the team a prize, and selected four other winners.

The load on the power grid varies according to the time of day. During the evening, when many people are watching television, peak loads often occur. If, for example, some of these viewers watched television at a different time, it would not result in less electricity being used, but this load shifting would, in total, “mean that the utility company could reduce its energy generation costs,” says electrical engineer Yong Ding. The group’s idea is that, to encourage users to do this, utility companies could pass on some of their savings to their customers. The team got together through the Software Campus program, in which all three are being sponsored.

Gamification for smart power consumption

In the future, household devices such as washing machines will be intelligent enough to start at precisely the point at which the electricity price is the lowest. “That’s one of the goals of the smart grid,” says Yong Ding. In addition to this automated approach, the team deliberately wanted to include the perspective of the end user in considerations about price-conscious energy consumption. “And without it being bothersome. It should be fun,” says Neumann. That’s why the team’s idea takes a gamification approach – in other words, translating a problem into a playful solution.

Take a look at the video about the prize-winning project:

 

Next page: How the bet with the utility company works

In real life, it might look something like this: A utility company that has an overview of the peak loads in its grid uses the smartphone app to place the following bet with consumers in a region: “You won’t manage to stop turning your washing machine on at 7 p.m.” Those who accept the bet and stuff their dirty washing into the machine at a less conventional time receive a price concession – and not at the end of the year, but rather, for example, at the end of the month. “A large number of people in a region need to accept bets for the peak load to really be reduced sufficiently at 7 p.m.,” Neumann and Hackenberg explain. At the same time, not too many consumers should switch to a new time, otherwise there will be another peak load at another time. If the utility company realizes over time that exactly this is happening – in other words, the load is simply being shifted – the bet must be changed and a new motivation to move to another time must be offered, Hackenberg explains.

For the winning team’s idea to be implemented, households need to be equipped with smart meters. According to the team, the utility company would install its current bets remotely on its customers’ smart meters, and then – at the same time –  challenge the customers to take part using the app. The smart meter would register whether the user accepts the bet and, if they win, would send a message to the utility company.

Developing an app prototype with SAP experts

Apart from the fact that it will be some time before all households are equipped with smart meters, the team of researchers have a range of other questions. They’ll be able to discuss these matters in a workshop with SAP experts in Silicon Valley this summer – their prize for the Utility of Tomorrow Innovation Contest. Together with SAP and utility companies, Neumann, Ding, and Hackenberg want to develop a prototype for their app there. The question of whether their brainchild will ever be marketed is still open. First, they’re hoping for a field study to explore the potential of the idea.

Find out more in this video about the competition:

 

Next page: The other four prize winners

An overview of the other four prize-winning projects:

Green Home – A Smart App for Electricity Authorities (Dubai Women’s College)

This mobile app is designed to get consumers to use less electricity in the household. Users should be motivated to do so by, for example,  sharing and comparing results with others using social networks.

Remote Appliance Manager and Energy Sustainability Companion (Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, India)

The objective here is to use innovative hardware and software to establish groundbreaking systems for energy management. These should help consumers reduce their energy bills.

The ProxiMate – Smart Circuit Breaker System and App (Robert Morris University, Pennsylvania, United States)

A circuit breaker system including an app for home W-LAN installations that will help consumers save energy.

My Water Usage Management App (San Francisco State University, California, United States)

Consumers can use the app to set their own water-saving goals. The app monitors progress and informs users of their results.

More information about the competition: https://ideas.sap.com/utilityoftomorrow

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