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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Can Digitalization Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Help People Age in Place?

As tools like Alexa, Google Home, and Siri have shown, digitalization is changing how we live in our homes. While many of the changes are related to lifestyle, they also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and help older Americans safely age in place. Two new working papers (and two commentaries on those papers), which were first presented at our housing and digitalization symposium last year, not only examine these opportunities but discuss the challenges associated with them, particularly with respect to equity and privacy.

In “Empowering Up, Powering Down: The Evolution, Effects, and Efforts to Digitize Energy Controls and Digitalize Energy Information in US Homes Carlos Martín, project director of our Remodeling Futures program, notes that the residential sector accounts for about 20 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Reducing those emissions requires managing residential energy consumption, and good management requires constant, consistent, and accurate information. Digitalization inside the home (programmable thermostats, smart appliances) and digitalization outside the home (“smart” meters) can provide that information. In theory, the information could help households reduce their energy usage. But, in practice, the most significant reductions – as much as 10 percent of peak-period demand – requires giving utility providers the ability to manage electricity usage in individual homes.

Achieving reductions is challenging. While almost two-thirds of all homes have smart meters, less than a quarter have programmable thermostats and an even fewer use the thermostat’s key features. Moreover, many consumers want to retain control over their activities, and many do not want to give utility providers access to their personal data. In addition, focusing on digitalization to reduce energy use raises a host of equity concerns. Absent efforts to incentivize uptake by households of modest means, more affluent households not only are more likely to acquire and use devices but also are more likely to reap the financial and health benefits.

Digitalization can also crowd out more cost-effective approaches to reducing residential energy uses among low- and moderate-income households, such as weatherization and replacing gas powered furnaces, stoves, and water heaters with electric ones. Therefore, Martín argues, digitalization should be compared to those approaches. And if it emerges from those assessments as a preferred course of action, then it must be deployed in the actual ways that they use energy and energy-savings devices like smart thermostats.

Digitalization also has the potential to help older Americans safely age in place, note Jennifer Molinsky, Samara Scheckler, and Bailey Hu (researchers in the Center’s Housing an Aging Society Program) in their paper, “Centering the Home in Conversations about Digital Technology to Support Older Adults Aging in Place.” Spurred in part by regulatory changes during the pandemic, there has been significant growth in the use of in-home devices that allow caregivers and healthcare providers to monitor and respond to changes in health measures. In combination with other smart home technologies, this monitoring technology can help people be active longer, remain socially connected, and live independently for years.

However, three factors limit their effectiveness. First, they may not be helpful if the people using them live in housing that is physically inadequate, does not meet accessibility needs, or is unaffordable, conditions that affect millions of older adults and especially people of color, those with low incomes, and renters. Second, the monitoring technologies could be so intrusive they change the positive feelings of safety and security that people often have about their homes into negative reminders of illness and frailty. Third, the digital devices may extend how long people stay in their home at the expense of burdensome care typically provided by family members and other unpaid caregivers. For all these reasons, it is critical that those developing new technologies “see the home as more than a box in which care and support occurs.” Moreover, introduction of new technologies should be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all older adults have access to housing that is safe, accessible, and affordable.

In her commentary on the two papers, Ann Forsyth, the Stanton Professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, observes that while focused on different topics, the papers have some common themes and raise similar issues. Both, for example, question the scale and audience for new digitalized technologies. For example, while a resident might be satisfied with a basic programmable thermostat, energy providers and policymakers may prefer a centralized control system to better manage system loads. Both papers also highlight issues related to time frames, notably the fact that buildings are in place for a long time, but digital technologies evolve quickly. As a result, many homes have systems and devices from different periods that cannot be connected or share data.

Forsyth also notes that equity remains a core issue to address. Such concerns, and strategies for addressing them, are the focus of a commentary written by Therese Peffer, program director at the California Institute for Energy and Environment at UC Berkeley. She observes that addressing equity concerns requires a focus on users and empowering them through the six I’s: give people insights into how they can help address problems, information on metrics, and the influence to make needed changes. These efforts should be supported by creating more interoperable devices, interdisciplinary collaborations to address problems, and by including diverse voices when developing solutions.

Taken together, the papers and commentaries make it clear that while digitalization can aid efforts to reduce GHG emissions and help older Americans age in place, it will not be a panacea for either challenge. Rather, it will be most effective if deployed in careful, thoughtful, and equitable ways.

The papers are the fourth set in a series focused on how digitalization is changing all aspects of housing; whether those changes are likely to advance (or stymie) efforts to address challenges related to housing affordability, equity, resiliency, and livability; and what kinds of policies might spur desired changes or exacerbate existing problems.