Almost Genius: Belkin's New In-Home Carbon Emissions Tool

Belkin's Conserve Insight monitor is good-looking. But what does it tell us that we don’t already know?

Conserve Insight is a new home energy monitor from Belkin billed as a tool to help you "[f]ind out how much energy your devices really use." Hook it up to appliances and it can tell you how much CO2 they're emitting, how much they cost to run, and how many watts they draw. Forget, for a moment, the theatrical, faintly sinister marketing language at work here, and mull on this: Should we even care?

Obviously, we consume more energy than we ought to. But will a device that details the precise power draw of the air conditioner and the dollars and cents of running the microwave modify behavior?

The device tells us, with extreme precision, what we already know. Most of us are well aware that if we're screwing in standard fluorescent bulbs—and having to replace them every month—we're fattening our carbon footprint. Those who aren't aware wouldn't buy Conserve Insight in the first place because, frankly, they don't give a crap about their carbon footprint any way.

It's true that some environmentally enlightened people might, unbeknownst to them, own ACs or refrigerators that suck tremendous amounts of energy. In that case, Conserve Insight could provide a real service. Once. But then what do you do with it? Throw it away? Not very green.

The biggest problem here is that there are no incentives to alter your behavior once you're schooled on how un-green you are. Contrast that to smart meters, which track energy usage more or less by the hour at the regional level and encourage conservation by charging more for consumption during peak demand. Deploying the technology around the United States has been slow-going and rife with setbacks. Nevertheless, various forms of energy monitoring are underway in 30 states, and it's only a matter of time before smart meters find their way into every household in America. In which case, you might as well wait for the real thing.

We admit: On pure aesthetic grounds, the device is a gem. It's got a simple interface with three graphic icons—a globe, a dollar-sign, and a lightening rod—so you know precisely what you're measuring without even having to read, and with its curved edges and slim body, it fits, iPod-like, into the palm of your hand. For design nerds and eco geeks alike, it's a deeply attractive product. While other products do roughly the same thing, the elegant design makes this a true consumer product.

And therein lies the conundrum. On one hand, we're supposed to consume less. On the other, we're lured by good design and clever marketing to consume more—Buy this organic chicken! Buy that reusable diaper! Buy this sweet little device that monitors your energy usage!—to the point where the whole notion of green living becomes a Sisyphean exercise in how expertly we can bleep out the noise. In this sense, the Conserve Insight tag line becomes something of a philosophical challenge: Find out how much energy your devices really use? If only it were that simple.

For example: Suppose your AC or refrigerator is an energy vampire. Do you throw it out? What about all that carbon it takes to make the new one that you buy? What's the pay back period? Is it really worth it? (After all, it can sometimes be more environmentally friendly to drive a used car than to buy a new Prius.)

In that sense, Conserve Insight (and ballyhooed products like it, such as the Kill-A-Watt) is both silly and genius: The perfect symbol of an age where you can never really be sure what "green" means. Every day, we get more and more information about living better—but less and less understanding of how to do it.

[Images via Belkin]