Posted by: bellaviaresearch | January 17, 2010

Keeping Up with the Joneses: Will Social Pressure Drive Energy Conservation?

If you’ve got power at your house, a flood of energy usage data is headed your direction someday soon.  If it hasn’t already, your utility company will replace your old mechanical meter — that someone read once a month — with a new digital “smart” meter – that will wirelessly transmit information about your household energy consumption on an hourly basis (more often if you are a business customer).

Today you probably get a statement that shows you how you did last month, and compares your usage to a few other relevant points in time — like last month, and the same time last year. You can learn a little bit from this comparison.  The Smart Meters will be accompanied by a massive increase in information, which your utility will likely give you access to online.  You’ll be able to compare this week to last week (when you were on vacation), weekdays to weekends, today with yesterday (when it was really hot, or really cold), and even this hour with last hour (when you watched a movie on that new Plasma screen TV and heated up your hottub).

I’ve had  the pleasure of helping utilities think through how to best present this information to their customers — so it is understandable, useful, and hopefully motivates customers to conserve energy.  This is no small undertaking.  I “met” a guy in a LinkedIn Group who summarized the problem beautifully:  “the average person thinks about his/her home energy costs about as much as thumb tacks and phytoplankton.” (thank you James Black!)  It’s like finding a way to make the tax code informative, interesting, and motivating. Huh?  No small feat.  And there can be a pretty big disconnect between the “I love data and complex excel graphs!” utility employees and the average “Joe/Jill” customer.

In usability testing sessions where I showed customers detailed info about their usage (wireframe mockups), one recurring question I have heard is “How am I really doing?”  Generally, customers like to believe that they are not the problem — somebody else is.  Many think they are doing ok, want to do ok, but don’t have the information they need to know if they are really doing ok, or doing enough.  They pat themselves on the back for turning off lights, but when they wander off to watch movies on their new plasma screen TVs they leave every peripheral in their offices plus the computer on overnight.   To figure out if they are really doing ok (or enough), many customers long to know how they compare to the neighbors.  This is one situation where many people don’t want to keep up with the Joneses;  and, if they are exceeding the Joneses in terms of energy consumption, they could be motivated to do better.

So I was thrilled today to learn that OPower and Xcel Energy have teamed up for a 3-year pilot program aimed at encouraging St. Paul, MN customers cut down.  Apparently similar pilots that use social pressure to drive conservation are being conducted in CA, WA, and elsewhere in MN.  Initial reports are positive —  Connexus Energy observed 2-3% drops in energy usage, and Xcel homes for the same.

(screenshot from the OPower website)

The customers in the XCel pilot received their first reports in December, with colorful paper statements that use the simple smiley face to indicate how a customer compares to 100 neighbors.  (Imagine that — colorful statements from your utility? with Smiley faces?  That’s new!)  You get 2 smiley faces for doing “great,” one for doing “good.”  Feedback in California suggested that frowny faces were not well received — so heavy users get a gentle nudge:  “You used more than average” and ideas for how to save.

There are, of course, privacy issues. And in an ideal world, the comparisons would be “apples to apples.”  For example, comparing a 1972 3,000 square foot house with a home office, a stay at home mom and kids, and a pool to a brand new 1,000 square foot house isn’t useful information.

I’m interested to see how this pilot plays out, and optimistic that this social pressure will have a positive impact. My research has suggested that this type of information could be very motivating if customers discover that they are at the top of the consumption pile.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when customers open a colorful bill from their utility company with a smiley face on it!

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