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Taking energy saving out of the dark ages

<p>If we could shed more light on the power we consume, it would be easier to use less, argues Pilgrim Beart, founder of energy visualization firm AlertMe.</p>

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to greater efficiency is the difficulty of visualizing energy flows. The amount of power consumed by modern electrical appliances is often hard to grasp and thus conveniently easy to ignore.

Pilgrim Beart, founder of AlertMe, would like to change that. He aims to make energy consumption a more tangible thing, to try to make it easier to trim.

At the VERGE conference in London, Beart was intent on illustrating his argument with what looked like the preparations for a record-breaking juggling attempt. Holding up one of the hundreds of brightly colored balls he brought on stage, Beart said, "Each of these balls represents the power to run a modern light bulb for six hours."

Into a large bucket Beart tossed 13 balls -- corresponding to the energy used to light an average home. "That's less than we were using a few years ago, due to energy-saving bulbs," he noted.

Another 13 balls bounced into the bucket for the refrigerator and freezer -- again, better than a decade ago due to more efficient products -- plus six more for computers and gadgets. A further 19 balls represented TVs and games consoles. "It would be fewer if they weren't so often left on standby," he said.

Four more balls for every time the oven warms up, two for every kettle boiled and one for every microwave meal created a rather full bucket, which brimmed further with the addition of 10 balls per hot-water wash or three balls for every cool cycle in the washing machine.

The bucket was put to one side as Beart hoisted aloft a net crammed with 110 balls. "That's showers and baths," he announced, emphasizing the high-energy cost of hot water. "Simply changing the shower head in my home has saved £400 [about $630] per year."

And then the final net was dragged onto the stage: a jiggling mass of 350 balls, showing the energy used to keep the average home at a comfortable temperature every day.

As Beart's performance amply illustrated, there is a great and pressing need for people to understand the energy impact of their actions. We are clearly kidding ourselves if we feel good about switching off the lights when we leave a room, for example, while the heating continues to churn through hundreds of times as much power.

"In the developed world, we are living in a bubble as far as energy consumption is concerned," said Beart.

By trying to burst that bubble, Beart hopes to galvanize more people into taking action that really makes a difference.

"The first thing we should do is insulate our homes properly," he said. "But we should also introduce smarter controls. Wattbox, for example, is a product that turns down the heating if a room isn't occupied. Using that could save 50 balls a day."

A straightforward display showing energy use in the home can cut consumption by as much as 8 percent simply by increasing awareness and vigilance, Beart added.

Beart's company, AlertMe, is focused on providing highly detailed information to help homeowners and businesses visualize their energy use -- fortunately not by delivering hundreds of rubber balls each day. "AlertMe pulls data into the cloud, makes sense of it and delivers it to the consumer," said Beart.

AlertMe subscribers can explore and understand their energy use through a PC, tablet or smartphone, receive personalized recommendations and -- with additional equipment -- remotely monitor and control appliances.

Ultimately, Beart would like energy impact to become something that's impossible to ignore -- to see the changing cost when switching between temperature settings on a washing machine, for example.

As Beart said: "We need to bring knowledge about the cost of our actions right down to where we make those decisions."

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