Can an entire city experience something akin to "The Prius Effect?"
That's what organizers of an innovative effort in Charlotte, N.C., are hoping as they begin showing 82,000 workers in the biggest office towers downtown the near real-time tallies of their electricity usage.
Just as Toyota Prius drivers start using gasoline-saving tactics once they're given non-stop data on their gas mileage, so workers in about 70 commercial buildings are expected to curb energy consumption as they repeatedly see how much the downtown area is using, according to leaders of the effort, called "Envision: Charlotte."
The public-private collaboration, which aims to reduce energy use in the buildings by 20 percent over the next five years, is combining educational efforts with digital smart-grid and building automation technology as well as some new interactive displays of energy usage.
A 20-percent reduction would be enough to avoid about 220,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases and would be equivalent to powering 40,000 homes for a year, according to Charlotte-based Duke Energy, which is leading the project.
Duke expects to flip the switch on the program this fall in North Carolina's largest city and the 18th largest in the U.S. "Envision: Charlotte" was announced in 2010 as part of the Clinton Global Initiative.
David McNelis, director of the Center for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economic Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that while many other organizations, including UNC, and cities are moving toward using "dashboard" programs to effect conservation by individuals, he hasn't heard of one quite like Charlotte's.
"I think it’s a marvelous project," he says, adding that accomplishing a 20-percent reduction in energy use downtown would be "phenomenal."
Duke is installing new smart meters in buildings to provide the real-time data, and it's working with its partners to install wireless digital displays in the lobbies of downtown buildings so that occupants and building owners begin seeing how much energy it's taking to power the city as those same people arrive for work or head out to meetings.
Developed with the help of Cisco Systems, the large-screen displays will also flash alerts on high-energy use days, track group efforts to reach energy-use goals and suggest easy ways to conserve, such as powering down your computer when you leave work.
"Once you make people aware, they become focused on it, and it changes the behavior," says Ed Carney, Cisco's vice president and general manager of the company's Research Triangle Park, N.C., location and its liaison with Duke.
Many other cities across the U.S. have energy conservation efforts, many of which are aimed at inducing retrofits of commercial buildings. But organizers say several things set apart "Envison: Charlotte," which expects to use what it learns from this program to initiate similar efforts related to water, air and waste.
First, it's not a government-led program. The city's major employers, building owners and managers, municipal and technology leaders are collaborating on an unprecedented scale, organizers say.
In addition to Duke and Cisco, other key partners in the program include Verizon Wireless, which is a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone, Charlotte City Center Partners and local governments.
Cisco and Verizon Wireless have each made in-kind contributions of more than $1 million, while Duke has committed more than $4 million in its efforts, organizers have said.
"It's very close to going live across the city," says Michael Brander, vice president of sales for the utility vertical marketplace for Verizon Wireless.
Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo Corp.are among major employers committing office space to the experiment.
Building owners, including Nascar Plaza owner Trinity Partners and Houston real estate firm Hines, along with offices tied to the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County will also participate.
Vincent Davis, Duke's point person on "Envision: Charlotte," says small- and medium-sized employers have also been key to signing up nearly 20 million square feet of commercial space so far. The goal is 21.5 million square feet.
Second, the effort is focused specifically on commercial buildings in a concentrated area and on behavioral changes by those building occupants, which organizers believe presents a more realistic opportunity to achieve the goals than all-encompassing programs elsewhere.
Some of those efforts aimed at encouraging personal changes are being developed with help from behavioral scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is developing a smart-phone game that will give players points in a virtual world as they take conservation steps in reality.
Third, the technology will allow the program to track and measure progress at all times.
"It's very close to going live across the city," says Michael Brander, a VP at Verizon Wireless.
He says "Envision: Charlotte's" efforts lined up perfectly with the wireless carrier's launch of its faster 4G LTE network, which will allow energy management devices, energy meters, the electric utility and the display monitors to communicate with one other fast enough to provide the streaming data on energy use.
Eventually, Cisco's display and network technology could be used in broader applications. For example, employers on super-hot days in the future could use network-connected phones to send office workers text messages, instructing them to work from home or move to temporary work spaces on lower levels of skyscrapers so that lights and cooling systems for upper floors can be powered down.