Verizon-sponsored Study Aims to Reduce Energy Use for Low-income Families

Nancy Shoemaker is learning about her energy use, making more informed decisions and saving money.

Meet Nancy Shoemaker. You’ll probably find her at home in Austin, Texas. She’s usually there, a friendly grandmother who lives alone with her small poodle Sasha, just enjoying the passing of the day or spending a few hours working at her part-time job as an interpreter on the telephone for medical personnel with Spanish-speaking patients.

She doesn’t get around much because, with severe emphysema, she’s reliant on an oxygen compressor. Get her off the machine, and she soon starts tiring out. Then she feels sick. Before long, she’s in serious trouble.

Because she’s on a limited income, she’s often wondered how much money it costs her to run the oxygen compressor she can never shut off. She once asked the power company, but they didn’t have an answer.

Then one day last year a young woman came to the door of Shoemaker’s apartment in Austin, Texas, with a proposal.

Would Shoemaker be willing to take part in a study to measure her energy use? Her apartment would be equipped with high-tech gadgets that would chart with precision the wattage powering her lights, appliances, air conditioning — and send her reports.

“I said sure, especially when she said they’d give me a $10 certificate for H.E.B.,” the leading local supermarket chain, Shoemaker said.

“And I went to the first meeting and, coolest thing, they gave me a Verizon Samsung tablet so we could follow, on an app, how we’re using electricity day by day.”

The study is sponsored by Pecan Street Inc., an Austin-based consumer-energy research company, and the Verizon Foundation. Since January, Pecan Street has been taking close measurements of energy use in 140 volunteer households in four low-income apartment complexes in Austin and making the personal results readily available to each participant.

The hope is that by seeing exactly how much money is wasted when lights are left on in an empty room or a stove kept running after the water has boiled, the residents will cut back on their energy use, saving themselves money and easing overall demand on the power grid.

Even small changes in behavior can make a big difference for these folks.

“Saving money is important to everyone,” says Jackie Renner, Pecan Street’s programs manager. “But that’s especially true for lower-income families that can spend 15 to 20 percent of their income on energy.”

Pecan Street has equipped each of the 140 apartments’ circuit box with a device that tracks circuit-by-circuit use in real time. Also, a Verizon broadband router and, in most homes, a Nest smart thermostat (one apartment complex already had another manufacturer’s smart thermostat installed).

Verizon provided grant money to make the study possible, along with much of the equipment and the use of Verizon Wireless’ network.

Each household also received a Verizon tablet and — because many lack internet access — a 2GB data plan to transmit and receive information over the cell network. An app on those tablets allows any resident to see how much power they’re using on any day or any hour, circuit by circuit.

Most of the householders are invited to workshops or counseled in one-on-one sessions on how to interpret the information on their apps and take steps to save on energy. As a control, some of the residents are not given access to the tablet app so researchers can gauge the impact of that tool.

After nine months of preparation, the project swung into action in January. It’s still too early to draw conclusions from the data, Renner said. A report due in July may show some trends.

But Shoemaker, 61, already has learned a lot.

One day, she was studying the app which showed the breakdown of her energy use and saw something so remarkable that she called Pecan Street’s Scott Grantham to discuss it.

“I think the living room is using as much electricity as everything else in the house,” she recalls telling him.

“He says, “What’s in there?’

“I say, ‘The fan, one electric light, a strip that the telephone plugs into, that’s it.’”

But she was forgetting the hungriest machine in the room. The compressor.

“He says, ‘Let’s try this. Go to the compressor. Pull it out.’

“So I did that. And the usage numbers went way down. He could see the data right away.”

The compressor, the Pecan Street data showed her, took up almost half her energy bill. In April, for instance, she paid $62.33 for electricity. Of that total, $17.19 went for air conditioning  (usually the biggest energy expense in a house in a Sunbelt location like Austin). But Shoemaker’s compressor comprised $29.29 of the bill.

In May, her electric bill totaled $68.94. The breakdown showed $24.76 for air conditioning. The compressor: $25.32.

Keeping the compressor running took up “a lot larger percentage of my bill than I had guessed,” Shoemaker says. But there appears little she can do to economize on it.

She says she must keep the oxygen pumping all the time, even when she leaves the house, because if she comes back and “forgets to turn on the machine, I realize that I’m getting sicker and sicker, and I wonder what should I do, call the doctor? And then it dawns on me, I didn’t have it on.”

No one expects Shoemaker to cut back on her compressor. But Pecan Street advisers have shown her how she can trim her electric bill by tinkering with lots of other household habits.

Now she’s trying harder to turn off unneeded lights; it keeps the house cooler. She’s cooking more with the microwave; it’s more efficient than heating the oven as long as she does. She’s letting food cool before putting it in the refrigerator, so the fridge won’t have to work as hard to chill it.

Meantime, the computerized Nest thermostat is learning her daily habits and adjusting the temperature automatically, keeping her comfortable without her turning it up or down.

She’s very happy to be part of the study. But, would this kind of close monitoring and feedback benefit many others? Would it pique their interest?

“I would hope it has widespread use,” she says. “When you don’t have a lot of money, every little bit helps.”