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Can traffic lights help save energy?

This smart intersection designed by the Virginia Technical Transportation Institute includes traffic signals and an advanced traffic controller system which was unveiled Tuesday, June 24, 2003 in McLean, Va. Electric utilities hope new smart meters based on traffic signal cues will help people put the brakes on their energy consumption.
This smart intersection designed by the Virginia Technical Transportation Institute includes traffic signals and an advanced traffic controller system which was unveiled Tuesday, June 24, 2003 in McLean, Va. Electric utilities hope new smart meters based on traffic signal cues will help people put the brakes on their energy consumption.AP / Adele Starr

Humans are visual creatures. When we see a red traffic light, we know to apply the brakes. Electric utilities are hoping a new generation of traffic light-like smart meter monitors will help people curb their energy consumption.

"When information is in real time and it's in your face it helps change habits," Catherine Cuellar, a spokeswoman for Oncor, an electric utility in Texas that is piloting two of the new monitors, told me Wednesday.

She has personally been testing the Landis+Gyr Ecometer, which has a screen that changes from green to yellow to red depending on how much energy is being consumed. She said it's been effective in getting her to take note of her energy use and even changed her behavior.

In one instance, she came home and the monitor was red. Her heat wasn't on and she couldn't figure out what was using so much juice. Then she realized her freezer door wasn't closed all the way. When she shut it, the monitor turned from red back to green.

This winter, the readings indicated higher energy consumption as temperatures dipped, prompting her to wear more layers, and to cuddle up with a blanket instead of cranking up the heat.

"That's the kind of instant awareness and conscientious and common-sense conservation that we believe this information will empower users to adopt," she said.

A similar gadget being piloted by the utility is manufactured by Tendril. Both run on the ZigBee standard, which allows two-way communication between devices and appliances in the house and a smart meter on the outside of the house.

Iris Kuo, writing on Venture Beat, noted that "it seems this (traffic light) approach is a simple but effective way to get to the vast majority of users who aren't terribly interested in raw energy usage data … In a home enabled with smart appliances like programmable thermostats and water heaters, these devices make even more sense."

More on the smart grid:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).