We all want to spend less and lower our impact on the planet when it comes to our own energy use, but how do we really get a handle on how much energy we’re using at any given time?

Your power company can usually show you your energy usage online or in your bill, so you’ve got that going for you…

But seeing it once a month or so when you’re paying bills is not the same as having it now, “in the moment” if you will, while you’re actually using the energy.

In cars, this has been addressed with real-time fuel efficiency displays showing your current Miles Per Gallon…fancy ones even give you a history of your mileage as well so you can see when you were lead-footed and when you were eco-friendly and efficient.

Now, a huge wave of new products are here or coming soon to let you monitor and manage your power use in real time.  The simplest of these displays can show you how much energy your house is using right now, how much you’ve used going back in time, and how much it cost you based upon your utility’s billing rate per kilowatt.  The more sophisticated ones can show what individual appliances and devices are using as well and even let you manage them so that you’re using your power when it costs less and is more plentiful (like at night).

Back in 2006, we started using the BlueLine Home Energy Monitor (at right) to watch our home’s power use in real-time.  It has a remote sensor that mounts on the electric meter and transmits to the display, showing the current power use of the home.  The display also tallies up how much power you’ve used cumulatively and, after you enter your peak and off-peak $/kW from your bill, will tell you your energy cost.  It was pretty cool.  We could turn off lights and computers and watch the power consumption drop.  It also let us become more aware of when were being wasteful as we soon learned what our steady-state usage was and thus could see if we had accidentally left a bunch of lights on or the TV or whatever.

The new wave of devices and software applications are taking this to the next level.

Microsoft, Google and Cisco are getting into the game, along with a passel of startups.  Soon your power usage will be web-accessible and on your phone.  Cool, but what will really change our behavior?

Most people are more likely to act in response to stimulus rather than being self-directed to initiate the right behavior.  Whether it’s mom yelling “turn off the TV, go outside and play” or “do your homework” or “honey, when were you going to clean out those gutters” or your trainer saying “just two more sets of 20…you can do it”, most of us finally act when pushed.

What does this mean for our home energy management?

Well, first, I think that many of these new systems with cool web-based displays of your energy information are great, useful, and cool, but ultimately they require people to take the initiative to go and look at their usage in order to decide to make changes.  That’s just too passive and non-interactive.

One of the coolest and most effective companies building technology that delivers key insights without requiring action is Ambient Devices.  This company builds a range of specialty devices that fit into your life – be it your home or office – and provide information from the web in the way that you need it – be it an orb that glows green when the stock market (or even a particular stock) is up and red when it’s down or a little weather display that shows live info from accuweather.com with your local forecast.

For energy monitoring, they have a concept of a device that plugs into a wall outlet and changes color based upon the current cost of energy and your usage.  Although not broadly available yet, we could envision such a device in our kitchen glowing red when we’re using a lot of power and green when we’re sipping it.

It’s not hard to envision programming it to turn blue when your solar panels are generating more than you’re consuming!  One glance and you’d know if you were being energy efficient.  No need to find your computer and log in to anything.  No need to look at your PG&E bill.  No need to guess.

Red      = Turn Stuff Off
Yellow = Left the Lights On?
Green  = You Da Man (or You Go Girl)

So simple a caveman could do it.

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