Watching what you use: slimming down energy consumption through self-monitoring

August 22, 2013

Queen’s students help Kingston residents make smarter energy choices with in-home displays

Queen's University students Emma Simpkin (pictured), project lead, and teammates Wilson Hung and Zain Shahzad won the best Ontario Power Authority (OPA) Energy Conservation project award - and $2,000 - in Discovery's Connections Competition in May 2013.

Reducing power consumption at an individual level remains a key strategy in energy conservation efforts. That’s why Utilities Kingston recently sought innovative ideas on this topic from local university students through OCE’s Ontario Power Authority (OPA) Connections program. 

To help Utilities Kingston achieve its target of reducing overall energy consumption by 37 GWh by 2014, Queen’s University students Emma Simpkin, project lead, and teammates Wilson Hung and Zain Shahzad investigated if in-home displays help people change their behaviour regarding energy usage. 

Simpkin explains that she was drawn to the project from her own personal experience with high energy costs. “I had spent a few years living in an old house with very high energy bills, which made me think about how to reduce my personal energy consumption to lower the cost,” says Simpkin. “When I heard about this project, I was excited to investigate if smart meters could be a viable solution for achieving this in the wider community.” 

The team’s study equipped nine Kingston homes with smart meters to monitor energy usage over a two-month period. Results reported a two per cent decrease in peak usage and a four per cent increase in off-peak usage among participants. For the residences that reduced their energy consumption, energy use declined an average of 10 per cent, resulting in savings of approximately $29 per household over the two-month study when compared to the previous year. 

Although the sample size was too small to be statistically significant, the students laid the crucial groundwork for future studies. They were able to determine what sample size is needed to achieve statistically significant results, and also came up with an innovative outdoor temperature correction method that allows for a comparison between a household’s current power usage and that of the previous year, based on the variation in outdoor temperature. 

The Utilities Kingston smart meter project won Emma and her team the best OPA Energy Conservation project award—and $2,000—at Discovery’s Connections Competition in May 2013. The project had positive outcomes for both sides involved; at a cost of $6,000, Utilities Kingston received an estimated $35,000 value, and the students’ results may be used for a larger study in the future. For Emma Simpkin, the project provided invaluable industry experience and the opportunity to contribute to an important community issue. 

“This experience has really piqued my interest in engineering projects which are undertaken in a community, where the main goal is to benefit residents,” says Simpkin. “It was also an excellent opportunity for me to give back to the City of Kingston, after having lived there for five years.”

Emma is currently applying the skills and experience she developed working on the Utilities Kingston project towards earning her Master of Engineering degree at Western University. After that, she hopes to work in environmental remediation or local water treatment where her work can continue to have community-wide benefits.