Energy use falls when neighbors compete
A California utility is using smiley faces on customer bills to show how people's usage compares with their neighbors'.
Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
One of the best ways to save energy and cut carbon emissions isnât the much-touted âsmart grid,â low-watt light bulbs, or high-tech appliances â itâs a little neighborly competition.
Just ask Sacramento resident Kat Kelly, who last year began getting a new âhome energy reportâ from her utility company that compared her familyâs electricity use directly with her neighborsâ.
On the report, one bar chart rated her familyâs electricity use against the average of 100 neighbors with similar sized houses â and also of her 20 most energy-efficient neighbors. The report had three rating levels: âbelow average,â a smiley face for a âgood,â or two smileys for a âgreat!â average.
A self-described âcompetitive person,â Ms. Kelly says she was shocked to learn that her family not only failed to get a smiley, it received a âbelow averageâ rating. That same day, she began turning off lights, changing the thermostat, and switching off her power strips â anything to save juice and win future smiley faces.
âIt got my competitive spirit going,â Kelly says. âI wanted to be one of the
energy conservers in my neighborhood.â
Her reaction is not unusual. Some say itâs the power of competition â the desire to keep up (or in this case âdownâ) with the Joneses. Others say itâs just logical
decisionmaking. Whatever it is, the simple act of informing residents about their neighborsâ power use can be like firing a starting gun in a race to save energy, researchers say.
Improving residential energy efficiency is critical to combating climate change since it equals about 35 percent of total US energy use and 15 percent of total US greenhouse-gas emissions, federal data show.
Over the decades, Americans have become more frugal with energy. But thousands of tiny personal choices around the house could substantially cut energy use.
How much? The âhuman dimensionâ in energy consumption could whack household energy use 22 percent nationwide â a 12 percent reduction in overall US energy consumption, according to a new American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). By comparison, all solar, geothermal, and wind power consumed last year amounted to about 1 percent of US energy use.
Yet human impact has been largely ignored by electric utilities. Instead, their efficiency programs have focused mostly on âwidget basedâ programs that pay rebates for efficient appliances, for instance.
But with new state laws boosting efficiency requirements, widget programs are reaching their limits. Thatâs pushing dozens of utilities to experiment.
âEnergy is very much an invisible commodity for most people,â says Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, an ACEEE researcher. âItâs not like pumping gas into your car. It flows invisibly into the house, and you donât know anything until you get the bill. We need people to have all the information so they can make better choices.â
Widely used on college campuses today to combat binge drinking, a âsocial normsâ approach surveys and then publishes data to make plain to students that campus drinking levels are (almost always) far lower than they think. Less binge drinking is the frequent result.
The social-norms approach has also been applied to curb gambling and environmental pollution, and to promote health choices. Online retailers use it to encourage purchases when they tell visitors that âcustomers who bought the items in your shopping cart also bought....â
âThe middle is a magnet for behavior,â says Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University and a pioneer on the social-norms impact on energy use. âWhat you find is people who are in the outlying areas as violators of the desirable behavior will move to the middle when they learn theyâre outliers.â
Thatâs what the SacraÂmenÂto Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in California found when its social-norms pilot tests over the past year cut energy demand by 2 percent â just by telling folks how their energy use compared with their neighborsâ. That drop may sound puny, but SMUD saved 9.5 billion watt-hours, equal to the electricity use of 1,000 average homes for a year.
The Kelly family, for instance, cut its energy use 10 percent â and have yet to win a smiley face. But Kat Kelly and thousands like her have SMUD officials smiling.
âEven those folks who received the âYou are below averageâ message from us saved, and actually saved the most of any other group,â says Alexandra Crawford, a SMUD project manager. At least two dozen utilities nationwide are experimenting with saving energy this way.
âYou arenât born knowing what your utility bill should be or âAm I using more than I need to?â â says Daniel Yates, president of OPOWER, in Arlington, Va., which analyzes SMUD customer energy use and pioneered using smiley faces. âYou know people think a Prius is a good thing and a Humvee is bad,â he says. âWell, a lot of Prius owners have Humvee houses and donât even know it.â
While OPOWER focuses on developing reports like those SMUD sent by mail, others are putting it on the Internet.
At Efficiency 2.0, a New York-based software provider to utility companies, Andy Frankâs team is working with the Western Massachusetts ElecÂtricity Company to create a Facebook-like community where people can help one another save energy and compare results in a friendly, yet competitive way.
Online comparisons come with frowny or smiley faces and also give people highly customized tips about how they can reduce their energy use. It offers, for instance, a calculator tallying myriad decisions â take shorter showers, adjust thermostat settings, or hand-wash dishes.
âWeâre like Weight Watchers for your energy use,â says Mr. Frank, Efficiency 2.0âs executive vice president for business development. âMost Americans would like to lose weight, but they donât do it because they donât get feedback. We provide that feedback [to cut energy use].â
Wendy Penner loves that feedback. Her website profile tells the community of users that she has chosen to hand- wash her dishes in cold water, saving 238 pounds per year of carbon dioxide and knocking $45 off her energy bill.
When those results didnât satisfy her, Ms. Penner further pledged to dial down her water heater temperature from 135 to 115 degrees F., saving 626 pounds of CO2 and $92 worth of fuel annually. Overall, sheâs lowered her personal energy use by 1.4 percent and is on track to save $190 per year and 1,120 lbs. of CO2.
That hasnât won her a smiley face yet, though. Until recently, her page sported a frowny face because sheâs doing better on energy use than only 25 percent of the community at large. She would like to be competing against a group of âenergy friends,â but doesnât have any since the site has only been running a month.
âThis is really a very powerful tool and I like it a lot,â Penner says. âThe motivation from it is pretty strong. People really donât like getting the frowny faces.â (In fact, SMUD and others have nixed frowny faces after some negative reactions.)
âIn a few cases weâve been accused of being agents of some secret service spying on them,â says Val Jensen, vice president for marketing and environmental programs for Commonwealth Edison. âBut that kind of reaction has been in the low single digits. Only one homeowner has said, âStop sending me this.â â
The report showed that the 20 most efficient homes in Mr. Bolandâs neighborhood used about 587 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month, while his group of 100 neighbors used 1,150 kWh per month. And Bolandâs home? Try 1,987 kWh monthly â 92 percent more than the average.
âMy first observation when I read the report was: âI am a pig!â â he says. âI knew I was paying a lot every month for electricity, but I thought everyone was. I didnât know I was such a glutton.â
Even though it made him feel guilty, Boland says he was also grateful. Now heâs changing his thermostat setting to reduce his air-conditioning load and looking for other ways to save energy â and money.
Heâs eager to see the next report to determine if heâs off the âbelow averageâ list. âI hope more power companies will pick up on this,â he says, âand not be afraid to tell their users: âYouâre below averageâ or maybe, âYouâre a pig!â â
[Editor's Note: The original version of this article referred to OPOWER by its previous name, Positive Energy.]