Ambient Orbs spark bright idea for cutting energy waste

Users get warning when prices go up

Clive Thompson at Wired magazine has shared an intriguing story about how Mark Martinez, demand response manager of electricity utility Southern California Edison (SCE), got 120 customers to reduce energy consumption by 40% during peak periods. He gave them Ambient Orbs, small spheres that you can place on your desk and that light up and change colour in response to changing streams of data.

Thompson notes that these balls of joy were first marketed to individuals for monitoring stock performance. If the orb is blue, all is well; when red, it’s time to consider quickly buying or selling.

Rather than receiving Nadsaq data, these orbs as configured by Martinez feed off data about electricity rates for SCE customers — rates that go up, of course, as demand swells. So when Martinez’s orb recipients see their balls flashing red, they know that it’s a good time to power down where possible (for example, adjust the thermostat, turn off excess lights, and so on).

It really is an elegant solution, as Thompson observes, providing a quiet yet constant reminder about electricity costs. It’s all too easy to forget or take for granted that for every minute you have an extra light on, or keep your computer and monitor running while not in use, or have your servers running at full throttle when they don’t need to be, you or your company is paying for it. And it’s especially useful to know when demand has spiked and your rates have suddenly shot up.

So I have a suggestion for SCE and other utility companies: build on this idea because it seems to work. But relying on Ambient Orbs, of course, isn’t practical. While they’re certainly neat and cool conversation pieces to boot, they’re also expensive: US$150 (NZ$209) a pop.

But how about developing a simple desktop utility that is fed the same data stream received by these orbs? When electricity rates go up, a little window can pop up telling you as much — and perhaps provide some tips as to what actions to take.

I know I’d be happy to donate a little bit of my computer-processing power to run such an application.

On a related note, I have a free utility from Uniblue called LocalCooling installed on my system, and it’s designed to optimise a PC’s power consumption. Among its features, it displays how many kilowatt hours, trees, and gasoline you’ve saved by managing your computer’s energy usage.

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Tags technologyambient orbssouthern california edison

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