How a Thermostat Built by Former Apple Guys Will Make Green Cool

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The Nest is just one in a line of new products that will help users cut energy use by offering more control and feedback than old devices

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It's called the low-hanging fruit of green energy: personal efficiency.

Programming a thermostat, pre-heating an oven for only as long as necessary, and, of course -- as every child has been told, repeatedly -- turning off the lights. But, as every child knows, it's easy to forget and annoying to disrupt whatever it is we are doing to turn off or turn down.

Several companies are debuting new energy-saving innovations to do the remembering for you -- or to remind you what it costs to forget.

Traditional monthly utility bills with abstract comparisons of the amount of therms used are too confusing to have much effect.

Last week, former Apple employees debuted their latest technological wonder: a thermostat. The sleekly designed, smooth-faced Nest learns from your habits and readjusts itself. It also senses when you leave home and arrive. And, while away, you can monitor or adjust the Nest on your smartphone.

"People don't program their thermostats," said Matt Rogers, a former iPod software tech who founded Nest with Apple colleague Tony Fadell. "Let's take the onus off of the user."

Nest also gives you a pat on the back: A small green leaf glows to let you know when you're saving money.

Home thermostat technology has seen little innovation in the past 40 years, despite the fact that it controls 10 percent of electricity use in the United States, Rogers said. "We wanted to bring love to the unloved product that is the thermostat," he said.

The Nest, expected to ship soon at $249, is one of several new options that aim to help users cut energy use by offering more control and feedback than traditional devices.

When it comes to changing energy consumption, habits are hard to break, but immediate, simple, visual feedback can get a consumer's attention, according to Linda Dethman, principal with the Cadmus Group, which critiques environmental solutions. For instance, traditional monthly utility bills with abstract comparisons of the amount of therms used are too confusing and too irregular to have much effect.

People are also deeply motivated by social norms, Dethman said. She gives the example of a study on hotel towel use: People were more motivated by a placard that said most other guests reused their towels than one that relied on an environmental plea.

A newly announced Facebook app is designed to tap into that social pressure to help people change their energy use habits. Opower will let users compare their energy consumption with that of other homeowners and will let them compete with friends for the most utility savings. The app, designed by an Arlington, Virginia, company by the same name, will also provide cost-saving tips from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Verizon, meanwhile, is offering a home monitoring and control service, unveiled last month, that gives consumers appliance-by-appliance feedback and control. Users can turn off lights from work or, in cooler months, bump up the thermostat before they return from a trip, according to Ann Shaub, director of consumer product marketing, whose family has been testing the service in their New Jersey home for months.

Shaub's monitor showed her family's electric use dropped 60 percent when the air conditioning was turned off at the end of summer. She knew heating and air were big energy guzzlers but the monitor demonstrated the full extent.

Another appliance monitor showed her that an extra fridge in the garage uses almost five percent of her home's total electricity in warmer months but just over one percent now that it has cooled off outside.

Shaub also monitors her 11-year-old son's Xbox to show him how much energy he is using. Last month the Xbox accounted for about half of one percent of her overall home use, she said. She shared the feedback with her son to convince him to cut back on gaming. And she uses the monitor's control feature at times to cut off power to the gaming console, "which he just thinks is the meanest thing," she said.

Verizon users can view a graphical comparison of the amount of carbon emissions they are saving in terms of gallons of gasoline burned or trees grown. The system comes with a smart thermostat, an energy-use reader, and appliance switch for about $170 and $10 per month. Users can add appliance and lighting switches as well as security features like door locks, window monitors, or cameras.

One downside: Because of ballasts in energy-efficient CFL lighting, Verizon's controls only work with incandescent bulbs, though suppliers are working to find a control solution for CFL bulbs, Shaub said.

The remote control component of devices like these may be more of a selling factor, but the end result still is energy savings, according to Nick Sinai, senior adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Value comes from interesting places," he said.

Image: Nest.

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Randy Leonard is an environment and energy reporter in Washington, D.C., for the Medill News Service. He has worked as an environmental scientist and has written on energy issues and politics for the Miami Herald and MarketWatch.com.

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