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4 learnings from designing for "NetZero"

  • owners of photovoltaic home energy systems make considerable adjustments to their daily routines to achieve a "Net Zero" living

  • they are acutely aware of the consumption ratings of their homes, cars or appliances etc.

  • to help achieve energy autonomy, design should make interacting with energy consumption data easy and transparent

  • "Future Prediction" of home energy production is a sought-after function

  • design should promote Energy Literacy: the intuitive understanding of energy consumption

  • in the future energy might become more like currency

Winter is coming!

But on the positive side, our current crisis forces Europeans to save on fossil fuel (Germany - 10% for Jan-July 2022) and secondly, it serves as a giant growth accelerator for renewable energy and for Europe's mission towards a zero-carbon future. But as of yet, we are heading towards the heating-season with much unclarity on the security and reliability of our energy supplies. And with gas prices up to 8 times higher than a year before, this winter will certainly put a dent into the standard of living for many of us; people are worried - both governments and media are sounding panicky!

Against this backdrop studiomem had the opportunity to support one of Germany's leading energy utilities in designing a more customer-centric offer. When researching the needs and expectations of the different stakeholders involved (owners of solar systems, installation firms), we have been collecting a number of insights on the impact that design has on interacting with solar energy systems - and on the more global mission to "Net Zero" Carbon Emissions:

1. Designing for Behaviour Change: people are further ahead than you think.

Interviewing tens of dozens of PV users in Germany has revealed that at least for this type of homeowner the "Transition to Zero" has essentially already happened: quite naturally, almost all of the users we spoke to track their solar generation daily. Many of them are literally obsessed with reaping the maximum amount of energy from the sun for direct use in their homes or for charging their car's batteries. When we ask them how many times per day they check their app to get an update on solar production many of them responded: "...several times per hour - both me and my partner!"

Even more so, PV users align their power consumption with what the sun has on offer: "If we see that there is an hour of sun coming up, we'll simply boil our potatoes then." said one respondent. "Our goal is to use as much of the electricity coming from our roof directly - e.g. for charging the car or doing the laundry - rather than storing it in our battery or selling it into the grid." Another user stated that they " have two small electric cars - one is always charging." With energy prices exploding, new PV owners are economy-driven: they have made the investment for a PV system to save cost and achieve energy autonomy. Feeling good about the climate, comes second.

"Our goal is to use as much of the electricity coming from our roof directly - e.g. for charging the car or doing the laundry - rather than storing it in our battery or selling it into the grid."

2. Designing for autonomy: energy is money

In some cases the energy crisis is unfortunately on it's way to becoming a housing crisis: for those that own a home heated with gas, a PV system is in many cases the only way to stay living in their homes: soaring inflation and exploding energy costs - both that were not foreseeable when their mortgage rates were locked-in - are threatening them - in worst cases - with eviction.

On the other hand, homeowners that already operate a PV system, have never before felt so financially and morally justified: the independence from exploding energy costs and the satisfaction of not-feeding Russia's war machine. "I forgot when I last looked at the gas station's price sign and I have no idea what the cost of gasoline currently is." said one satisfied-sounding owner. The EU's goal is to build and enable a decentralised power grid with as many energy-autonomous homes as possible and autonomy is the PV system owner's Nirvana: ideally, you consume only what you've produced - any surplus is charged into the grid at a (modest) profit. Or charged into a cloud account: it works like a virtual battery by collecting the summer-surplus for withdrawal in the darker winter days.

But in some cases the autonomy calculation doesn't add up: homeowners that have recently increased their consumption (e.g, by adding an electric vehicle to a pre-existing system ) are feeling the pinch: "I monitor my energy production very closely. If my cloud account is not full enough, I might not make it through the winter autonomously."

"I forgot when I last looked at the gas station's price sign and I have no idea what the cost of gasoline currently is."

The ability to plan and manage one's autonomy hinges around the clarity and accuracy of the information that we put into the hands of the user. The holy grail here is Future Projection: algorithms that can merge a local weather forecast with accurate system data of a home and it's consumption patterns will learn to predict kWh production more accurately over time. And that will make it easier to plan for- and manage autonomy.

"Future Prediction of kWh's" is beginning to feel similar to some of the interactions of financial apps or digital health apps: "how much will I produce this summer?" being analogous to "how fit will I be after 2 months training?" analogous to "how much money will I have earned by Christmas?".

Designing for energy autonomy means designing interfaces for transparency and clarity: users WANT to understand where their energy goes and why - our designs needs to deliver on that..

3. Designing for Energy Literacy

Much of the accelerated transition to renewables that the climate so desperately needs depends on an overall closer relationship with energy and a better understanding of everyday consumption. While PV owners already have a very concrete idea how much heat one kWh generates for their home or for how many kilometers it will power their car, non-PV households need that same level of "energy literacy" : how much of it is needed to power their car or for microwaving a meal or for streaming a movie in 4K resolution. Design will need to make that relationship tangible. To grasp the value and cost of energy, we need to design systems and interactions that will help make consuming it, saving it or generating it as relatable and tangible as liters/day or Km/h.

4. Outlook: From current to currency

On our way to achieving a truly circular society, energy must become a more important dimension in our daily lives. Until the dream of inexpensive, abundant renewable energy can be realised via nuclear fusion (in 2022 commercialisation is still decades away) or fail-safe mini nuclear fission reactors (see the attacks on nuclear reactors in Ukraine) its cost will keep increasing. The rising cost of energy, will force us all to become more attuned to our daily kwh consumptions. In addition, the decentralised, digitalised grids of the future can be expected to make energy tradeable from peer-to-peer: almost like currency and enabled by smart metering and Blockchain technologies, new business models will appear that might even threaten some of the purpose of today's large utility companies: generating-, trading- or commercially-selling energy should be technically possible for any individual with an IP-address and a solar roof or a windmill in their backyard.

The SmartGrid of the future might evolve similar to the development of the internet: towards a decentralised web of energy providers and consumers. In fact, monetizing ones home-made energy in a future "crowd-grid" should not be more diificult than selling homemade jam on Etsy.

Which brings us to the Smart Home of the future. The battle for Smart Home supremacy fought by the Apples, Amazons and Samsungs will also be fought around sustainable energy management. At IFA 2022 Samsung was showcasing "Net Zero Home", a space where it illustrated how users will be able to produce, store, manage and consume energy at home without creating any surplus or shortage.

Samsungs IFA demonstration is an electronics manufacturers first step towards holistic energy management and only a beginning in a rapidly expanding market.

How will your business reach Net Zero?

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