Skip Navigation

NSF CAREER AWARD: OU Engineer to Examine How Cost, Environmental Concerns Impact Consumer Energy Use

February 21, 2023

NSF CAREER AWARD: OU Engineer to Examine How Cost, Environmental Concerns Impact Consumer Energy Use

Editor's Note: OU Engineering faculty are bringing unprecedented success to the Gallogly College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. In 2023, the National Science Foundation announced that six engineering faculty received an Early Career Development Award (CAREER) that recognizes junior faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and to learn research advances. 

Understanding energy use and its impact on the sustainability of the electrical grid is critical to accelerating the reduction of global carbon emissions. University of Oklahoma researcher Jie Cai, Ph.D., has received a Faculty Early Career Development Award, known as a CAREER award, from the National Science Foundation to better understand the interplay of an individual’s financial and environmental goals in shaping their energy use behaviors.

During peak demand hours for most electricity markets in the United States, electricity prices are high while carbon emission rates are low due to the operation of costly but less-polluting natural gas plants. Research suggests that when consumers understand this relationship between prices and emissions, they may respond to the conflicting price and emission signals differently.

Cai, an assistant professor in the School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering, said, “Individual consumer goals guide their energy use behaviors. When electric utilities and agencies understand their consumer’s goals, they can design better utility programs and policies to reduce the carbon footprint of the power sector.”

Using a game-theory framework, Cai will develop consumer behavior models from data collected through online tests with a custom-designed energy demand game and sociotechnical experiments in a multi-family apartment complex with a diverse socioeconomic population in downtown Oklahoma City.

“Smart thermostats will be installed that present carbon intensity information and the price of electricity to each consumer. An artificial intelligence engine will also make recommended temperature settings for each household. User interactions with the thermostats and their real-time energy use will be analyzed to determine if any behavioral changes occur,” Cai said.

By the end of the five-year project, Cai plans to develop a statistical behavioral model that characterizes how consumers’ energy use behaviors correlate with socio-demographic variables. Additionally, he hopes to understand residential customers’ beliefs about energy-related carbon emissions and if those beliefs have an impact on energy use behaviors.

This project will also provide opportunities for K-12, underrepresented, undergraduate and graduate students to acquire cross-disciplinary skills that are critical to addressing future engineering challenges, including a partnership with the Sooner Flight Academy to create energy-related educational content for its programs.

About the Project
"CAREER: An altruistic game theoretic framework to characterize environmental responsiveness of residential electricity consumption" is funded by the National Science Foundation, award no. 2238381. The project begins Feb. 15, 2023, and is estimated to end Jan. 31, 2028.

By Chelsea Julian, Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships