ABU DHABI // When this year's batch of new students at Masdar Institute signed up for their courses, they expected they would be there to learn and conduct research.
They might not, however, have suspected that they would be the subjects of a Big Brother-style social experiment.
Other researchers will be watching them closely; not for their personal interactions and flirtations, as in the popular television show, but something much simpler — their bills.
They will be the subjects of a year-long investigation into which incentives encourage people to use less energy and water.
It will provide, according to Professor Scott Kennedy, the Masdar Institute's associate dean of research, a wealth of accurate data about consumption, and how it responds to various stimuli.
"Taking detailed, highly granular data on energy and water consumption is one advantage we have at Masdar City with a large number of installed meters," he said.
"We can monitor within each apartment minute-by-minute electricity consumption, cold water use and hot water use."
And while Masdar students come from a variety of backgrounds, Dr Kennedy thinks their early to mid 20s ages and busy schedules will make it easier for researchers to see the links between the behaviour and the stimuli.
"Because it is a relatively homogenous population, we would be able to get some interesting results," he said.
Masdar prides itself on being a carbon-neutral development - and because almost all the UAE's fresh water has to be desalinated, that makes conservation important, too.
The project is part of a five-year collaboration between Masdar and the German technology company Siemens to create smart grids - electrical distribution systems that allow power to be fed in from microgeneration.
Conventional power grids let power flow in one direction only, from a supplier such as a large power plant, to the consumer.
Smart grids allow power to be distributed in two directions. Power can be fed into to the grid from multiple points, and consumers can also be suppliers if they have spare power, such as solar panels that generate more power than they can use.
This is quite a technical challenge, since grids need to be balanced to make sure they are not overloaded, and that they are delivering all their consumers the power they need. While the Masdar-Siemens scheme looks at many aspects of smart grid technology, Dr Kennedy's research project is essentially about people and how they respond to different stimuli.
The participants will be divided into four groups. The first, the control group, will not be offered any encouragement or incentives to consume less power.
Group two will be told each day how much power and water they have each used in comparison with their peers. A third group will be offered financial incentives to save.
The last group will be offered energy credits - effectively capping the amount of power they can use. The cap will be based on the projected supply of renewable energy from Masdar City rooftop solar panels.
"This is a new idea that we have developed to consider a pricing mechanism that encourages energy-efficient behaviour," said Dr Kennedy.
While such credits are already used to encourage large users to reduce consumption, and suppliers to generate from renewable sources, he said he was "not aware of any application for a retail energy market".
The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, for example, allocates pollution quotas for certain energy-intensive industries. While it is not designed to immediately reduce pollution levels, it attempts to ensure emissions do not cross a certain level.
It also encourages participants who have used up less than their allocation to use even less, as they are allowed to trade any unused allocation. The same principle will apply in the Masdar experiment.
But these incentives may not even be necessary, according to Hans Altmann, the regional manager at Techem Energy Services Middle East, which makes electricity meters.
His company had previously found that letting people know what they use can make a difference.
"We had a similar situation in a building in Dubai, where consumption dropped just from people receiving bills of what they might have to pay in future," he said.
However, he said the financial benefits would likely encourage greater savings.
While money can be a motivator, peer pressure can be powerful, too. Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist and director of the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, suggested it was a big influence for about 75 per cent of the population.
As far as energy efficiency is concerned, most people would not become frugal because they believe in it, but because others are doing it. "Peer pressure is very important for these people," he said.
"If they see others doing it, they would jump on the bandwagon."That, he said, weighed in favour of other approaches such as celebrity endorsements.
"A lot of people are impulsive, they want immediate results," he said. "They do not know how to delay gratification.
"Motivating people to go into anything might be better achieved with testimonials. Testimonials from athletes, actors and others people emulate can be very effective."