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The fight against the climate crisis comes home — to your home
Nov 16, 2021

The fight against the climate crisis comes home — to your home

When enough homes have smart thermostats, that data could add up and have a real impact.

Diplomats from nearly 200 countries made a deal at the United Nations COP26 climate conference to do more to limit global warming. Not enough, according to experts, but, it’s something.

Even without stronger global action, many are looking to individual actions to reduce emissions.

For example, Google Maps now offers hints at eco-friendly driving routes, and many electric utilities are pushing consumers to install smart thermostats in their homes, with the idea that small changes by millions of consumers will make a difference for the environment and for people’s wallets.

John Picard is an “innovation catalyst” and sustainability expert. He says the tech to do this is already here. He spoke with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

John Picard: I think it’s already happening. And I think up until connectivity to the cloud with thermostats, Google and others, there was no window into at what time were we cycling our heating or our cooling. So I think it’s already an ongoing thing.

Adams: What’s it going to take to really leverage these new technologies at scale to make a difference?

Picard: Program. Like, I think they’re going to have to give the thermostats away.

Adams: Who is they?

Picard: The manufacturers. The applications are going to have to be very secure, very private. You’re going to have to control your privacy settings. I think that you get to architect and design the features that you want and when. And I think that the manufacturers — the Nests, the Ecobees and the Honeywells — are going to have to jump into a relationship with utilities and start to look at how they can provide these prescriptive incentives. So I think there’s some really exciting applications coming that are going to help people see exactly what their footprint is and also understand when they make these minor modifications, just cycling our appliances, that you can actually see when you’re doing it at the right time and when you’re not. But if somebody could just sort of get the big picture for me, and I could see the benefit and the savings and that I became part of the climate solution, I would be encouraged to stay in that network.

Adams: How much pushback are you anticipating to the privacy concerns? You’re talking about a lot of data being gathered about people’s day-to-day lives, and being shared with companies, and these sort of social nudges from artificial intelligence to try to influence behavior.

Picard: I think privacy is a big deal. And I think we have the tools to structure those software safety cages. The shift will come when somebody, one of the manufacturers, says, “Here is the privacy frame that we offer. You check in as much privacy as you want, from zero to 10. At 10, we don’t see anything. At eight or nine, over here on your security system, this is what we’re tagging.” And you make a very good point about the data that they get. It’s what they mine and extract from that data that’s sort of, I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing, but it’s worrying. What [do] they know about when my lights are on and off? If all my systems are based on occupancy, they’re starting to see a history of when I’m home and when I’m not.

And they’ll take that data, and they’ll process that in ways that they’ll understand where there’s windows of opportunities to sell or push things. That’s the kind of stuff that I think we should be in control of. In fact, I think the reverse should be in effect. I think that should be something that we get to sell, that we’re in a position of saying, “If you want to know when I’m home, you can pay me $500 a year to know when I’m home. You want to know how I use my heating and air system? Then you and Carrier and PG&E, you go figure it out, and you can pay me $150 a year, I’m happy to join the club. But I’m not giving my data away for free.” I think that’s when the adoption curve goes way up.

Adams: Why has sort of greening residential homes been such a challenge so far?

Picard: Too many platforms, too many people trying to do it. There’s no single hub. People are hesitant about privacy. The other thing is they’ve done a terrible job of positioning the impact, or talking about the importance for us to act collectively to be a portfolio of change. And so I think the thermostats are the beginning of sort of, you’ve heard a lot about the smart home and the Internet of Things and the Internet of Everything, but they just never really made it as interesting as it is to us. They just didn’t market it right, and they didn’t communicate the benefits right. And I think if they go back and do that, I think there’ll be a higher adoption curve.

Adams: We’re also seeing companies like Google Maps telling us which routes are the most energy efficient. How much of a difference do these micro-changes to individual behavior factor into some of these larger climate goals?

Picard: Yeah, so there’s a lot of history there to that, right, to precision mapping and course corrections. I think that there’s tremendous opportunity for us to look at those analytics and look at those trends, and if we can give people a better position and there’s some efficiencies there, I think we should be adopting these things. Nothing is more potent, nothing’s more powerful than networking end users with software that can support us with the kind of precision that we just can’t see. So I’m all for AI and automation to be a robust solution to climate, whether it’s residential or commercial. I’m in support of trying to help them get better connected to the customer, better connected to the utility, better connected to the big goal that we all have, which is if we could develop this in partnership, instead of all these sort of linear layers of service, we would all be in a better place sooner.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

The Wall Street Journal has more details about new tools from Google to make its Nest smart thermostat better at curbing emissions. It also has an interactive piece on what else individual homeowners can do to reduce their carbon footprint. Not much in there for renters, though.

And 9News in Denver, Colorado, has an interview with one of the scientists behind some of the research Google used to help figure out those greener routes on its maps. A team at the National Renewable Energy Lab has been looking at how things like elevation, topography and starts and stops factor into fuel efficiency. Google estimates the new feature could save more than a million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, if enough people use it.

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