This fall, 50,000 Massachusetts power customers are getting their first energy report cards in the mail. Just as in school, they’re being judged against their peers, with the model citizens getting smiley faces and the laggards getting advice for cleaning up their acts.
Until now, these homeowners could only judge their own energy use by their month-to-month bills. The new Home Energy Reports (HERs) compare their energy use to that of neighbors with similar demographics and similar size homes.
Officials hope the peer pressure encourages users to take a few simple steps to stop wasting electricity — and money.
A few utilities that are testing HERs were able to reduce energy consumption up to 3.5 percent over the summer, says Arlington, Va.-based OPOWER (formerly Positive Energy), an energy efficiency software company that designed and delivers HERs for 21 utility companies, including six of the 10 largest in the U.S.
If the system spreads nationwide, OPOWER co-founder and President Alex Laskey says, it could help cut back on the 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from residential electricity use and produce savings equivalent to taking 6 million cars off the road.
Motivating Behavior Changes
Putting the basic desire to keep up with the Joneses to work for energy savings is delivering results.
“The exciting thing about HERs is that PSE (Puget Sound Energy) saw a statistically significant reduction of use within 48 hours of customers receiving the reports for the first time,” said Todd Starnes, manager of residential energy efficiency for the utility.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which launched the first utility-run HER pilot program in April 2008 with 35,000 households, found that the first year’s reduction of energy use was between 2.1 percent and 2.2 percent. The second year is delivering 2.8 percent in annual savings, with 3.5 percent in savings during the summer.
Connexus Energy’s pilot program for 40,000 Minnesota households returned similar results. It also revealed that residents receiving monthly energy reports rather than quarterly reports saved more.
Most of the customers made small changes in behavior — installing compact fluorescent lights, turning off lights when they left the room, shutting down computers at night, and adjusting thermostat settings, according to SMUD and Connexus Energy.
“They knew about these before, but the home energy reports reminded them, and they became better at it,” said Ali Crawford, project manager for SMUD.
Early indications show that energy savings from HERs get better over time, perhaps because “the reports tell residents what they can do to save, and if they see that their neighbors are saving, they know that it’s feasible for them to do it too,” said Dr. Robert Cialdini, OPOWER’s chief scientist and the author of Influence: Science and Practice (2009).
Over time, customers may also make bigger investments, such as insulating windows or buying more efficient appliances. And while households that start out with higher consumption tend to show more improvement, PSE is finding as much or more savings in households ranked in the upper tiers, probably because they want to retain their status.
When Robert Moffitt and his wife were randomly selected to be part of the Connexus Energy pilot program, they were delighted. They’ve been a green household for years, but the HERs made them more aware of their habits and motivated them to do better.
“I liked getting the reports with two smiley faces on them — it was so affirming and made us feel we were making a difference,” Moffitt said.
“We are in the top 5 percent of all our neighbors for energy savings, so we’re ‘super savers.’ During the summer when we used air conditioning, we dropped into the ‘good savers’ category … and we were definitely motivated to get back into the ‘super savers’ group again.”
Why HERs Work
The HERs are based largely on Cialdini’s behavioral science research on persuasion and influence.
In 2007, Cialdini and colleagues conducted an experiment that involved placing one of four door hangers on the doors of participants once a week for a month. The door hangers informed residents that (1) they could save money by conserving energy, or (2) they could save the earth’s resources by conserving energy, or (3) they could be socially responsible citizens by conserving energy, or (4) the majority of their neighbors tried regularly to conserve energy. Although residents reported that they would be least influenced by their neighbors’ energy usage, this was the only type of door hanger information that led to significant efforts to conserve energy.
In a BBC interview, Cialdini’s colleague Vlades Griskevicius, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, explained,
“On the one hand, you want to be like everyone else; on the other hand you want to be better than everyone else.
"If energy conservation is the important topic of the day, that’s the topic you want to compete with your neighbors about. … If we’re doing better than our neighbors, it has long lasting effects on our genes. … It’s about reproduction and status which enables you to … attract better quality mates and have better quality children.”
Customer and Utility Satisfaction