June 17, 2011 / 5:52 PM / 6 years ago

How Smartphones Make Energy Efficiency Easier and More Fun

4 Min Read

Are smart phones making it easier for consumers to integrate energy efficiency into their lives? I recently heard about a new app called Light Bulb Finder that will let you figure out how to replace your incandescent light bulbs with more efficient technology as well as how much money you will save in your electricity bills. It put me in mid of a recent revelation of how smartphones have also made plugging into an EV charging network a very different experience than in the 1990s.

Light bulbs are a surprisingly hot topic in the United States right now, at least among parts of the political and chattering classes. President Obama is visiting an LED lighting factory in North Carolina, to, ahem, illuminate the benefits of green technology to the U.S. economy. But, the real reason light bulbs are getting attention is that a national light bulb efficiency mandate, enacted as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is set to go into effect next year. It sets efficiency standards that would phase out the incandescent bulb. As such, some politicians and advocacy groups have turned the mandate into a poster child for nanny state-ism and are trying to overturn it, but it remains in place for now.

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has made an effort to provide consumers with information on potential savings when you replace those incandescents, through its Energy Star website. The website has a savings calculator in the form of a somewhat complicated Excel spreadsheet you have to download which is not great, unless you are a numbers junkie. The smartphone provides an easier and more intuitive way to do this. With the Light Bulb Finder app, you plug in your zip code, and it shows you the electricity rate for you area (you can also fill it in yourself). Then you go to each light fixture in your house, select the fixture type, using a graphic interface, and then select the bulb type and a few other basic bits of info, including how many hours a day the light is on.

Then, voila, you get a shopping list of replacement bulbs and a tally of how much money you will save each year. Not surprisingly, the app creators have a mercenary interest. The app is by Eco Hatchery, who hope you will buy your light bulbs from them. Of course, it still requires some initiative from the consumer. You have to be interested in efficiency to begin with and it was tempting to guess on some of the bulb attributes (was it a 3 1/8 inch or 3 3/4 inch diameter?). Still, it was easier than running a spreadsheet and you have the information with you on your phone whenever you want to go shopping.

But I think the changes wrought by a smartphone world are even more dramatic for EV charging. I noticed this when attending the Electric Drive Transportation Association conference earlier this year. The exhibit hall was full of charging equipment providers who are selling their software capability more than the actual hardware. By comparison, in the pre-smartphone 1990s, if you wanted to know where to charge your EV, the most convenient option was to check one of a few websites (often government sponsored) for a map of U.S. charging spots. You could then print this out and take it with you. Now, this seems so old fashioned. Today you can download an app like Coulomb's ChargePoint, find the closest station, see if it is available, make a reservation and map the way there. What is striking is not that this is made possible by everything being wired today, but that it seems normal. Increasingly, people expect that they can locate the closet burrito shop, ATM, whatever, on their phone, place an order (if it's the burrito shop) and get directions there. In the same way, finding an EV charger now is not an inconvenience, but just another thing you can do on your phone.

Photo by Paul Keller/flickr/Creative Commons

Lisa Jerram is an analyst at Pike Research with a focus on fuel cells and emerging transportation technologies.

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