Shining a light into the black box: Disaggregation technology

Many use the metaphor of a seed sprouting and growing to describe technology development: there first needs to be an idea (seed), but it requires the right conditions (soil, water, temperature, light) to start to grow. For disaggregation technology, the market is not quite there to create the conditions which allow this idea to grow.

Foto von Daniel Norris auf Unsplash

The advantages of disaggregation appear clear: It shines a light into the blackbox of a smart meter reading. Disaggregating allows us to see all the consumption “tributaries”, like a boiler, fridge and TV, which make up the entire household meter reading “river”. In knowing how each tributary is consuming, in volume and time, we can optimize its efficiency (e.g. using less or at less high-demand times of the day, changing standard settings, or replacing with more efficient versions). More information = more knowledge and ability to make impactful change.

However, it is less clear who will pay for this technology and what is a business model that allows further innovation development. Technically quite complex, disaggregation is not a standard technology and is still developing to handle some major challenges: each house is uniquely made up of different appliances, different consumers with different daily patterns. The “fingerprint” of a single appliance cannot be seen in the consumption data, just like how we cannot know where each drop of water in a river originated from.

Rather, a combination of indicators allows developers to start to isolate unique events in the consumption data patterns and associate them to specific appliances. While for some appliances this is easier, like for a fridge or heatpump, which have a recognizable demand pattern over a day, for other appliances the randomness of use and demand is harder to separate out.

Another difficulty is to separate similar appliances by their actual electrical fingerprints. Motors used in heatpumps and fridges have different electrical characteristics than non-rotating machines, but within each group it is difficult to separate them from each other. An internet router has a very similar electrical fingerprint as a LED lightbulb. And when a large appliance is running, like a heat pump, this masks the fingerprints of any smaller appliances being used at the same time, like TV’s, computers or light bulbs.

Thus, in order to maintain a reasonable accuracy, as incorrect attribution may cause changes that could actually increase consumption, disaggregation was limited to heating, non-heating and standby within Social Power Plus.

See more about the disaggregation technology, its potential and challenges, developed for reading heat pump consumption within the project here from CLEMAP.

Within the Social Power Plus project, with a reduced, but therefore more accurate, disaggregation of heating and non-heating energy use, several participants were able to optimize poorly-operating heat pumps, replace their boilers for smaller and more efficient versions, identify the savings from replacing halogen lightbulbs with LEDs, and adjusted automatic heating setting in bathrooms and laundry rooms.

You may ask- but if this is just a question of innovating until someone figures out how to read all the electricity consumptions, why isn’t research or the market there yet? Good question, and the answer is because the market conditions are not favourable to continue to put resources (time, money, and brain power) in this direction.

While the technology may be interesting for households who want to save on their electricity bills or reduce their environmental impact, energy utilities are not yet working with this type of data to innovate their own business models (e.g. to manage grid loads through real-time feedback to customers) and thus are not yet developing the technology themselves. Government research funding often steps in to fill this gap. With the support of the local stakeholders, like the energy utilities, more information on infrastructure and installations (e.g. where a PV panel has been installed or an EV charging station) can be known which can support a more goal-oriented and high accuracy disaggregation.

The potential of the technology is also not yet known (a classic chicken and egg problem). Projects like Social Power Plus, which involved some forward-thinking energy utilities willing to take a risk, will allow us to estimate what the actual savings potential may be when disaggregated information is provided. The results of the project will be read by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, who funded the project, and hopefully they will see the potential and continue to finance further efforts to develop disaggregation technology.

With support from the private sector and government, the right conditions can be created to make this technology grow.

What is standby?

Standby consumption, also called idle loss, is the electricity lost by electrical appliances when they are waiting in standby mode. Standby describes the state of appliances that are not completely switched off, but ready to receive a signal to act (e.g. turn on fully, make a coffee, print a document, etc.). This means that the power supply remains switched on so that the appliance is ready for immediate use. This is the case, for example, with monitors, televisions, TV boxes, etc. According to standby statistics from the Swiss Agency for Energy Efficiency, electronic devices in Swiss households consume around 160 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year in standby mode alone. This corresponds to the annual electricity consumption of about 40,000 typical four-person households [1].

Standby detectives

A group of students measured the standby consumption of all their electrical appliances at home and compared them with each other. They noticed the following things:

  • Devices from the audio, TV and IT sector have a much higher standby consumption compared to the other categories.
  • Larger appliances also tend to have a higher standby consumption.
  • Chargers often have very low standby consumption (e-bike charger slightly higher, but still comparatively low)

The three students draw their own conclusion: “It was exciting to see how different the standby consumption is and we were a little shocked to see how much power our consumer electronics constantly consume in standby mode.”

Measures to reduce standby consumption

To avoid wasting electricity, appliances should be switched off completely. You can even do this from the comfort of your couch with remote-controlled sockets. However, these do not always save electricity because they are constantly on standby due to their radio module and thus in turn have standby consumption themselves. So in terms of electricity consumption, a remote-controlled socket is only worthwhile if the electricity consumption without a remote-controlled socket consumes more electricity [2]. Mechanical switches such as a timer are better. This is possible thanks to an adapter plug with a sensor that is plugged in between the appliance (TV, monitor, TV box) and the socket. Another variant is a power bar with a switch that can completely disconnect the plugged-in devices from the power supply. Don’t forget to completely switch off and unplug all electronic devices before you go on holiday [2].

Savings potential with standby

6 to 14 percent of the total electricity consumption of a household is caused by standby [3]. This can vary from household to household. By consistently avoiding standby with the measures suggested above, an average household can save between 300 and 600 kWh per year, which is equivalent to about 100 Swiss francs depending on energy prices [4].


[1]         BKW, “Energie sparen”, Accessed: Sep. 20, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[2]         F.-O. Grün, “Wann eine Funk-Steckdose Energie spart – Und wann nicht.” (accessed Sep. 20, 2022).

[3]         N. Boogen, “Schweizer Haushalte könnten Strom sparen”, Accessed: Sep. 20, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[4]         BKW, “Energie sparen”.

Understanding the «Social» of Social Power Plus

The Social Power Plus app is still in use, however the main intensive phase of energy savings is over. We have analysed the data from this intensive phase to understand more about the “Social” aspect of the project, in particular:

  • Who is using the app?
  • How were people interacting with each other on the app’s pinboard?

The app has been designed to help people learn from the tips and challenges in the app, but also to learn from each other through the pinboard. But who are these people?

220 people originally joined the app (75% men, average age of 51 years old), with about 100 people regularly using the app.

App openings over the intensive use phase of the app.

Age range of participants from 28 to 83!

And how have these people used the app to connect to each other? We analysed the use of the pinboard: it was used actively by about 10% of the users by mostly asking and answering questions. While this is not a lot of exchange, participants also mentioned that they passively read other people’s pinboard posts but did not want to add anything themselves.

Interaction intensity between different app users

So, as is typical in such a multi-faceted app, there were people who were more “social” and others that were more interested in their energy consumption data or the energy savings tips. We are pleased to see that all the different app features were found to be useful and will continue to work on improving a collective impact through a lot of people making their own individual impact. When we add it all together, we can create “social power”.

Curious about solar power? “Do it! We need more PV.”

Have you thought about installing PV panels on your roof? Now that you have been observing your electricity consumption in the Social Power Plus app, you might start to consider how you can use sunlight to source your daytime electricity use (or even night time, with a battery!).

We have curated some useful resources to get you started and to avoid the common hurdles of information overwhelm.

Here are the first things you want to consider:

  • What does the overall process look like? Check out Energieschweiz for an overview and cost-benefit analysis:
  • Calculate the potential of your roof:
  • Consider future features so you can plan for them later such as: battery, heatpump, or an electric vehicle. They don’t have to be part of the current installation, but considering them now makes it easier to adapt the system to integrate them later.

Curious to go further? Contact a Swiss solar cooperative to get an offer. They work in all regions, have very attractive pricing, you can get directly involved in the planning, installation and knowledge sharing, and their network supports multiple aspects of the project including technical, financial and social. Of course, your local utility also offers support.

Once you get several offers, you can send them to Energieschweiz and they will assess them for you and provide feedback on the technical and financial differences.

Personal experiences

Of course, the installation of a PV system is different for every house and every customer. Nevertheless, it is exciting to hear how other households have experienced this process and what practical tips they have. Here you can find a report about a PV system after one year of operation.

Talking to someone who has recently completed the process in his multi-family building, he mentioned how surprised he was “by how cheap PV has become. It really makes a lot of financial sense with a return on investment under 10 years, since we are using so much of what we produce ourselves.”

The price of the electricity for his solar system, including insurance, smart meter installation and PV installation was less than half of the utility provided electricity. Further he had a great experience working with a solar cooperative as “we could become directly involved in learning how to install a PV, even get a certificate for this skill and helped out on other installation as part of the network of the cooperative.” However, he offers a hint for those interested “start planning early, as due to supply chain shortages, covid, etc., it can take up to a year to get the project completed”. But he encourages us to “Do it! We need more PV.

The energy experts of your region

Every now and then we receive questions on various energy topics, such as PV systems, renovations, etc.. The professionals at the energy offices will be happy to give you personal advice. Here you can find all the contact details for the three regions:


Stadtwerk Winterthur Energy Consulting:

Energy consutling Region Winterthur:

Energy companies “energie bewegt winterthur”:


Technische Betriebe Wil:

Energy agency St. Gallen:

Energgy agency St. Gallen- Consultant for Wil:


Energy unit  of the Canton of Schaffhausen :

Phase 1 complete! Update on the first three months of Social Power Plus

From February – May 2022, around 200 energy-saving foxes (aka. Residents from Winterthur, and the regions of Wil and Schaffhausen) took an intensive look at their energy consumption at home. We all learned a lot: the participants about their energy consumption, and the project team about how the app can be further improved.

In the three regional energy-saving competitions, each of which lasted a week, we were able to crown the Wil region the winner, all three times! The race was extremely close each time, and during the week first place was often changing between regions.  With savings in the ranging between 15% and 33%, a lot of energy was saved – always measured against the previous month’s weekly average.  Overall, savings were impacted by seasonal effects, since with rising temperatures from January to April, less heating energy is consumed.

During the three months of Phase 1, the research team was in intensive exchange with the participants:by email, via the pinboard in the app, or at the three online meetings that were held during this time. On the one hand, individual energy consumption patterns were discussed and temporary malfunctions were reported and dealt with via these various channels, and on the other hand, a great deal of valuable feedback and suggestions for improvements to the app were received. At the third meeting, for example, we learned that the savings comparison with other households was most popular.

In the app, the participants have the opportunity to exchange information and ask questions on a thematically structured pinboard. This was actively used, and experiences and tips on activities and technologies were shared, as well as questions from others were answered. From initial feedback we have learned that this kind of exchange among like-minded people is very valuable and motivating.

At the end of this first phase, participants will receive a second online questionnaire, where we will investigate their changes in energy knowledge and behaviour, as well as gather feedback on the app.

In the next phase until the end of 2022, participants will still be able to use the Social Power Plus app, with their energy consumption still being updated and displayed daily. The energy saving tips, the challenges and the pinboard will also remain. However, there will be no more regional energy saving competitions and no new challenges.

We wish the participants an enjoyable summer and keep an eye on how your energy consumption changes with the seasons!

Join our energy saving challenge

Saving energy and using it efficiently? It’s not always easy – but we can help you! If you are a customer of EKS, Stadtwerk or TBW then take part in the campaign “We are the energy saving foxes”: You will see your energy data (electricity and heating) and receive practical energy saving tips from us and the other energy saving foxes in the region! We are looking for 100 households per region.

You can find more information, participation requirements and registration here.


Social Power Plus: energy saving in households is a collective challenge

Social Power Plus is an app-based community energy challenge aimed at promoting energy saving in households through a fun and gameful approach. The app and energy challenge will tackle both electricity and heating energy consumption and will be co-created with a group of interested citizens in a living lab approach. The effectiveness of the app will be assessed through a field test involving households living in the districts of the Swiss utility companies EKS (link), Technische Betriebe Wil (link) and Stadtwerk Winterthur (link). Do you live in such districts and would you like to join the living lab? Come back soon to visit this page and discover how to be part of the project!