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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'.

By Staff writer / September 30, 2009

Kat Kelly and her daughter, Ava, have breakfast in their Rancho Cardova, Calif., home. The Kellys have cut their energy use since seeing how their neighbors conserve.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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One of the best ways to save energy and cut carbon emissions isn’t the much-touted “smart grid,” low-watt light bulbs, or high-tech appliances – it’s a little neighborly competition.

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Just ask Sacramento resident Kat Kelly, who last year began getting a new “home energy report” from her utility company that compared her family’s electricity use directly with her neighbors’.

On the report, one bar chart rated her family’s electricity use against the average of 100 neighbors with similar sized houses – and also of her 20 most energy-efficient neighbors. The report had three rating levels: “below average,” a smiley face for a “good,” or two smileys for a “great!” average.

A self-described “competitive person,” Ms. Kelly says she was shocked to learn that her family not only failed to get a smiley, it received a “below average” rating. That same day, she began turning off lights, changing the thermostat, and switching off her power strips – anything to save juice and win future smiley faces.

“It got my competitive spirit going,” Kelly says. “I wanted to be one of the
energy conservers in my neighborhood.”

Her reaction is not unusual. Some say it’s the power of competition – the desire to keep up (or in this case “down”) with the Joneses. Others say it’s just logical
decisionmaking. Whatever it is, the simple act of informing residents about their neighbors’ 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 “human dimension” in energy consumption could whack household energy use 22 percent nationwide – 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 “widget based” programs that pay rebates for efficient appliances, for instance.

But with new state laws boosting efficiency requirements, widget programs are reaching their limits. That’s pushing dozens of utilities to experiment.

“Energy is very much an invisible commodity for most people,” says Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, an ACEEE researcher. “It’s not like pumping gas into your car. It flows invisibly into the house, and you don’t know anything until you get the bill. We need people to have all the information so they can make better choices.”

Widely used on college campuses today to combat binge drinking, a “social norms” 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.