Image courtesy of Efficiency Maine

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Savvy electricity customers will have more chances to save money as utilities move toward billing based not just on how much power they use, but when they use it. 

With an eye toward that future, Efficiency Maine recently relaunched a program that puts home energy monitoring kits in the hands of library patrons.

The program allows patrons to borrow energy monitors that can be plugged into wall outlets. When a device is plugged into the monitor, the monitor gives a readout of how much electricity the device is using.

“The next decade is going to be a new era of people managing their electricity use much more proactively than in the past,” said Michael Stoddard, Efficiency Maine’s executive director. “And that’s why it makes a lot of sense that the kids of this generation get familiar with how all these devices use electricity and how much they consume, so that they’ll be savvy customers in the future.”

Maine, like other states, is moving forward on a massive push to electrify transportation and home heating, new loads that will raise the stakes for customers to manage their electricity use. But even as electricity takes an elevated role in everyday life, it’s not something that’s tangible or very visible to consumers. Stoddard hopes this program helps customers understand their electricity use day-to-day and take it less for granted.

The efficiency utility has revamped the home energy monitoring kits, particularly by improving on a worksheet that helps users figure out how much they’re spending to power any given device.

Aside from the updated worksheet and a newer version of the monitor, the kits themselves haven’t changed much, he said. “It’s really more, I think, a matter of how it’s grown in importance since a decade ago.”

When the program first launched in 2008, Efficiency Maine sent between two and six home energy monitoring kits to about 200 public libraries. This year, after surveying all of the state’s libraries with the help of the Maine State Library, nearly 60 public libraries requested new materials, including the new worksheets and some new monitors.

Focus on time-of-use

Stoddard said he expects the program to evolve to focus more on the time people are using electricity rather than just the quantity they use. 

“The level of usage of these kits is certainly one metric that we will track,” he said, “but the success overall will be measured in seeing Mainers shift to much more sophisticated use of their electronic devices. This is just going to play a small role in that evolution.”

He added that new appliances themselves will play a bigger role in helping people change their electricity use, since operations of these new devices are so heavily smartphone-focused and designed for user optimization. It’s already been seen in the commercial sector, he said, as many organizations with large facilities digitally monitor and manage their electricity use to save money. That kind of load management is likely to permeate the residential sector, he said.

“Maine’s a state with older housing, and the efficiency of what’s going on in our houses is very important to people,” said Janet McKenney, director of library development at the Maine State Library, which helped Efficiency Maine coordinate the program. McKenney said the program originally began as the “library of things” concept was growing — the idea that libraries could circulate items that would be useful to patrons besides books.

Electric prices in Maine are higher than in many other states, she added, and residents are also aware of high heating costs given the state’s reliance on oil heating, which is expensive. She predicts the state’s libraries will participate in other energy-focused initiatives. Scarborough Public Library, for example, offers free electric vehicle charging at its solar-powered charging station.

A ‘great number of circulations’

Library representatives reported a mix of experiences with the home energy monitoring kits. In Portland, Maine’s largest city, the public library’s seven kits have been checked out more than 325 times total since the library got them in 2009, according to Aaron Rosenblum, a health and science librarian.

He said that’s a “great number of circulations,” adding that he believes they circulated more heavily closer to when they first arrived, like many library items do.

In Bangor, Hannah Young, the public library’s director of development and marketing, said the library had about 12 home energy monitors as of 2009, and five remain. Those five had been checked out 224 times, averaging 22 check-outs a year, she said.

“This may not seem huge,” Young wrote in an email, “but is actually more than some popular books average in a similar 10-year period.”

Maine’s libraries don’t keep many records about who borrows items, as a way to guard patron privacy. Anecdotally, Young said, most patrons whom staff have assisted with the kits in the last five years were homeowners trying to better understand efficiency of specific appliances or who wanted to measure their electricity consumption as a whole.

The Bangor library requested two new monitors, which it added to its collection Sept. 1, bringing the catalog’s total to seven. Library officials requested the new monitors “knowing that some of ours are just getting very old, and it’s still of interest to the community,” Young said. “We know that it’s a specialized item that few folks would need long-term, so better to add it to the sharing economy and make it readily available to our community for free.”

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.