Gamification – can it enable electric vehicles to unlock the smart grid?

Gamification is demonstrating its potential in engaging consumers and harnessing residential demand side response.
Published: Wed 18 Jul 2018

Gamification is being introduced increasingly in the energy sector as part of efforts to engage consumers with when and how they use their energy.

With the growth of decentralised generation and electric vehicles (EVs) among consumers and the challenges and opportunities these present for the broader energy system, such engagement is becoming ever more important – even if ultimately from the consumers’ perspective their user experience needs to be near seamless.

Indicative of the potential of gamification, i.e. the application of gaming theory in non-game contexts, the UK government is funding a new £400,000 project to investigate whether it can encourage EV drivers to engage with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies.

“Technology is at the heart of delivering [the energy future] but it has to engage energy users,” says Dale Vince, founder of green energy company Ecotricity, one of the project partners. “This study will help us better understand the relationship between people and technology.”

Customer engagement

There are currently some 150,000 EVs on the road in Britain. Clearly, these offer the opportunity to use their battery storage potential to support the grid in V2G and vehicle-to-home applications. However, the challenge is how to get EV drivers to sign up and allow energy companies and the system operator National Grid to harness that flexibility, in the process possibly even requiring them to adapt their travel plans.

The project will look to overcome that challenge from a behavioural perspective and will consider the effectiveness of a range of innovative consumer engagement methods and behaviour change techniques, focusing on mobile phone applications and the use of gamification.

It will also analyse the business case for V2G technologies and their impact on the national grid.

In addition to Ecotricity, which developed the Electric Highway EV charging network, other participants include the energy game developer GenGame and energy market monitoring specialist EnAppSys. Newcastle University is the academic partner and northeastern England Northern Powergrid is the participating distribution network operator.

“We see a lot of great work on demonstrating V2G technology, but not always considering why a consumer would want such technology in their home, or how to address some of the concerns they might have, such as the impact on the life of their expensive car battery,” says GenGame CEO Stephane Lee-Favier. “We aim to solve these problems as part of this project.”

Northern Powergrid Innovation Project Manager Andrew Webster says: “The growth in EVs will increase the opportunities to connect to local power networks providing greater system flexibility and use of renewable energy sources. This project will look at how gamification and reward mechanisms can encourage smarter use of EVs by owners to provide greater system flexibility and use of renewable energy sources to help decarbonise the grid."

Early concept design for the V2G gaming app (source GenGame)

Flexibility for the grid

The project is part of the V2G competition in the UK, into which the government, through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV), the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK, is ploughing tens of millions of pounds. The stated ambition is to become a world leader in e-mobility but it also reflects the growing need for both active management of EV charging as their numbers grow and for flexibility to support a decentralised and distributed energy system.

Northern Powergrid has been pioneering the use of gamification for flexibility with GenGame in a three-year trial which has grown to involve more than 2,000 customers competing for cash prizes by turning off washing machines, televisions, lights and other home devices. The initiative is believed to be the first to show how a mobile game can incentivise households to reduce their consumption at times of high demand. While many businesses receive payments for providing demand side response, there have been few trials at the residential level.

Each month, £350 of cash prizes are available. The average game time is 100 seconds and players have reduced their electricity consumption by an average 11%. While this amounts to 305W, some have cut consumption as much as 4.9kW by turning off appliances such as EVs, caravans, hot tubs and tropical fish tank heaters for short periods of time.

Players are sensitised at periods of high demand with an alert saying ‘It’s GenGame time’. The more they reduce their consumption, the more points they earn, increasing their chance to win the cash prizes online.

Lee-Favier explains: “Pausing your washing machine is only worth around 10p, which isn’t going to change customers’ behaviour. However, if you aggregate lots of small actions into one pot and create a £100 monthly prize it becomes much more interesting.”

According to a statement, the project, named Activating Community Engagement, has generated valuable insights into how to incentivise consumer behaviour change, which will now be applied to the EV project. Average household daytime consumption is around 0.5kW but charging a typical EV can require 7-10kW.

Webster comments: “If we see an increase in EVs in one area we could just run a GenGame and reward people for charging their car when there is spare capacity on the network. As long as the incentive costs less than upgrading the local network, we have a winner.”

He adds: “We are working with customers in the way they want and we now have more than 2,000 people active as flexibility providers. This is a much more dynamic approach for a more dynamic world. It creates a personal connection which we could also explore for other purposes such as fault reporting and energy saving advice.”

Energy game development

During the pilot, user behaviour was tracked, resulting in around 20 updates to the app to optimise performance and improve engagement. Lee-Favier says that one challenge was how to keep people engaged when there were only two or three GenGames a week.

The solution was to develop a fun game called GenBlast, which people can play at any time to win ‘power-up’ points. GenBlast gives players suggestions about how to reduce energy consumption and by keeping power low they can win more. Players can use the power-up points they win at GenBlast to improve their performance in GenGame, and by doing so earn more points to enter for prizes.

Developers also learned that by placing ads on Thursday and sending out equipment first class to arrive on Saturday, they could increase the number of people setting it up from 35% to 75%. These and other improvements have cut the cost of recruiting customers by around 90% to a couple of pounds per person.