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Carbon Bot

Can we help our members make greener decisions about when to use energy? We’re experimenting with a Twitter bot and Amazon Alexa skill (available soon) to find out.

Follow @bulbcarbonbot on Twitter

The amount of renewable energy on the grid changes minute by minute, depending on things like the weather. As it changes, so does the amount of CO2 emitted by everyone’s electricity use — this is called the carbon intensity.

National Grid and the Environmental Defence Fund publish a forecast of the carbon intensity for the next 48 hours, through the Carbon Intensity API.

Carbon intensity chart
Example of how carbon intensity varies over a 48h period, from Carbon Intensity API

All Bulb customers are buying 100% renewable electricity, but making greener decisions about when to use it can help the grid as a whole and support the UK’s transition to 100% renewable energy for everyone.

To help people with this, we built Carbon Bot, a Twitter bot and Amazon Alexa skill (available soon) that provides actionable information about the carbon intensity forecast, making it easier to make greener decisions about when to use energy.

How it works

Carbon Bot use data from the Carbon Intensity API to calculate forecasts, making them available as a stream of notifications through the Twitter bot, or on-demand through an Alexa skill.

The Twitter bot tweets twice a day, at 7am and 5pm, displaying a small graph of the forecast ahead.

Example tweet from Carbon Bot, including a graph of the upcoming carbon forecast.

The Alexa skill lets you ask a question of Carbon Bot directly:

“Alexa, ask Carbon Bot when to charge the car tonight”

“It looks like 11pm to 1am is the greenest time to use electricity tonight”

What we learnt

We researched Carbon Bot, energy management, and broader understanding of grid carbon intensity with early adopter energy enthusiasts as well as more mainstream users. These are our early findings.

The money needs to follow

Carbon Bot has no financial incentive in place, relying purely on people’s intentions to reduce their carbon emissions.

We quickly learnt that without a financial incentive to shift usage around it’s very difficult to get people to change behaviour, even amongst renewable energy enthusiasts.

People expect money to be linked to ‘good’ environmental behaviour, as part of systems that encourage these. Money isn’t the only motivation, but it makes it easier to do the right thing.

For Bulb, this is an interesting avenue of exploration — how do we provide a financial incentive that rewards without confusing or disempowering people?

Automation is the unlock

After money, automation also makes it easier to change behaviour. The early adopters we spoke to used various technologies and tools to automate decision making and remove the mental overhead, or “static”.

At its simplest, people are using timers to get the most out of Economy 7, but we also saw tools like the Zappi charger which are able to define rules around to judge when it’s optimal to charge a battery or electric vehicle.

If Bulb develops financial incentives to encourage more efficient energy use, exposing data and APIs to make it easy to automate these behaviours will be important in helping people adopt them.

Patterns and rhythms

We also quickly learnt that Twitter is not useful for delivering actionable information. It’s too noisy, and the tweets are difficult to find when needed.

Many of the energy enthusiasts we spoke had the UK Grid Carbon app on their phone, and checked it from time to time. They described developing a ‘sixth sense’ – having a sense of whether the carbon intensity would be up or down, depending on the weather or time or day.

We think our Twitter bot might serve a similar purpose – having it pop up in the timeline from time to time will surface patterns and rhythms that help people develop an intuition, much like the weather. This is good for broadening understanding of how the grid works, even if it doesn’t directly lead to behaviour change.

Alexa for action, Hue for ambient

Related to the above, we saw early adopters using ambient forms of information, such as the Philips Hue lightbulb, alongside imperative devices like Amazon’s Alexa. This was important in developing the “sixth sense” without being dependent on their phone.

Next we’d like to explore which forms of ambient awareness work best, and how we integrate with them, or make it easy for people to build their own.