Researchers find new ways to promote sustainable household energy use

Researchers have found a new way to encourage people to spread out the usage of high-powered household appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers, which is essential in ensuring that demand can be met by renewable energy sources.  

The study published by MIT Press was led by PhD researcher Nathan Brooks and Dr James Borg from Keele University, and Dr Simon Powers from Edinburgh Napier University, and was presented at the 2020 Artificial Life Conference. The research explores the effectiveness of using social capital to encourage people to disperse household energy usage and promote the efficient use of renewable energy.  

Using a social capital model, which is based on thewillingness of people to help each other, the researchers found that people would accept allocated timeslots to use their household appliances to help balance the usage of renewable energy. 

The research provides a viable new approach to balance household energy usage which could be implemented in real-world community energy grids, and demonstrates that decentralised approaches can work for individuals whilst also creating a more sustainable energy supply and discouraging selfish behaviour. 

Previous approaches to encourage the use of high-powered household appliances during various times in the day, such as cheaper overnight prices set by centralised utility companies, have been ineffective in tackling the problem.  

The team developed an alternative solution which involves agents which are simulated virtual people, who receive an initial allocation of timeslots to use their household appliances and can exchange them with each other.  

The simulation found that where people are willing to be more flexible in the exchange of timeslots that they accept, then overall satisfaction will increase.  

To encourage flexibility, a mechanism that incorporates social capital was implemented which involves tracking the favours given and received between the virtual people. The team found that social capital encourages people to act flexibly and give favours by accepting exchanges that do not immediately benefit them, with even the most selfish agents learning to produce socially beneficial outcomes. 

Dr Borg said: “This work is an exciting first step in using agent-based modelling to explore how we can flatten energy demand in a fair and equitable way that puts households at centre of the decision-making process, instead of a centralised top-down micro-management approach.  

“This work begins to shed light on how simple mechanisms like exchanging favours could be a powerful way of achieving a more sustainable household energy use going forward."