A Do-It-Yourself Approach to Energy Efficiency Assessment

August 16, 2022

The current energy crisis experienced by many countries in Europe is expected to get worse when winter arrives. Some countries, spearheaded by Germany, have already begun to address this issue by significantly reducing their reliance on gas through a wide range of energy-saving measures.[1] These include turning off hot water and turning down thermostats in administrative buildings, not illuminating monuments at night, and asking citizens to do their bit which includes saving energy as much as possible and working from home during certain periods. Such measures are meant to comply with the European Commission’s 15% reduction proposal across the European Union.[2]

Türkiye, though not part of the European Union, is in a similar situation due to its geographic proximity to the region. Turkish government has announced plans to introduce low-interest 5-year loans for home insulation in preparation for a tough-looking winter. It is not clear how many households will take up the offer and start installing better home insulation; nevertheless, it is a good measure given the circumstances. There are, however, other methods and tools to make smaller-scale improvements that may seem minor but cumulatively they can make an impact and provide the much-needed boost in terms of energy efficiency.

One such method is using thermal imaging to identify potential heat losses in buildings, especially around windows, air vents and doors. Heat audits are usually done by private companies using specialist equipment which is not accessible to a lot of households due to high costs and availability. Recognising this issue, some tech companies have been developing low-cost sensors that, once attached to a mobile phone, can act as a thermal imaging camera. I suspect in 5-10 years’ time most mobile phones will have this capability built-in.

Unlike ordinary photos, thermal images do not display the exact colour of the scene. In thermal imaging, red represents hot thermal radiation and blue represents coldness. Using this simple distinction, it is possible to assess any scene—be it a room in a flat or an outdoor space like a garden—to see where heat is concentrated and where it might be lost. The same technology is also used for surveillance as well as more complicated operations such as firefighting and military drills.

Source: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170614-thermal-imaging-reveals-the-hidden-heat-lost-from-your-home

If a small device that can be attached to a mobile phone is made accessible to the public, then each household will have to capability to do this assessment themselves. However, cost is not negligible—the ones we looked at cost around 500 USD per device (in Türkiye) at the time of writing. Although these mobile phone attachments are certainly cheaper than conventional specialist equipment, they are still not within reach for many people. Moreover, even if some can afford it, it is not a smart investment decision since they will only need to use it once or twice. The price tag cannot easily be justified. A potential solution to this problem is to establish a loan scheme in which people can be given a device for a short period of time to do their own heat audits. Not only would that give them agency and enough of an incentive to improve energy efficiency in their homes, but it would also mean that there is no permanent reliance on a central body (e.g., a municipality or an energy company) to carry out audits on behalf of every household.

We think such an approach would be a good opportunity to carry out a few mini experiments in which we can explore at least some of these questions:

  1. How will participants respond when they are presented with evidence collected through thermal imaging? Will this kind of self-initiated information gathering exercise be more effective than any other awareness raising method in which people are passive recipients of information?
  2. Will there be any differences between people’s reactions to findings based on their socio-economic background?
  3. Are there any commonalities between flats/houses when it comes to heat loss?
  4. How would a loan scheme work? Who needs to be responsible for the distribution and recollection of the devices? The municipality or some other actor? Who will maintain them? How long should they be loaned for?
  5. Following audits, how do we expect households to respond to any negative findings? Will they take immediate action to address identified heat losses through retrofitting or repair, or will they be put off by the prospect of potential disruption during such works or simply unaffordability?
  6. Will certain repair and/or retrofitting work be more popular than others? For instance, will people opt for cheaper, easier interventions rather than costly but longer-term, more effective solutions?
  7. Where in the country should we test this approach first? If successful, how can we then scale it?
  8. Can we find local manufacturers to keep the costs down? If not, how can we convince local tech companies to develop the technology and start producing it? The latter option would have additional benefits since it promotes technology development in the country.
  9. What types of data (other than self-reported) can we collect to assess the value of this intervention? What kind of a software do we need to gather meaningful data?

In the fight for saving the planet and keeping energy costs down especially for lower income households ahead of a tough winter, we ought to find answers to the above questions sooner rather than later. We will shortly begin a new experiment in partnership with the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources and other relevant stakeholders.

If you are a tech company and have a product that we can test as part of this experiment, please do get in touch with me Gokce Tuna (Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab) at gokce.tuna@undp.org and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/wary-russian-blackmail-germany-unveils-energy-saving-measures-2022-07-21/

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_4608