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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'.

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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 “customers who bought the items in your shopping cart also bought....”

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“The middle is a magnet for behavior,” says Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University and a pioneer on the social-norms impact on energy use. “What you find is people who are in the outlying areas as violators of the desirable behavior will move to the middle when they learn they’re outliers.”

That’s what the Sacra­men­to Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in California found when its social-norms pilot tests over the past year cut energy demand by 2 percent – just by telling folks how their energy use compared with their neighbors’. 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 – and have yet to win a smiley face. But Kat Kelly and thousands like her have SMUD officials smiling.

“Even those folks who received the ‘You are below average’ message from us saved, and actually saved the most of any other group,” says Alexandra Crawford, a SMUD project manager. At least two dozen utilities nationwide are experimenting with saving energy this way.

“You aren’t born knowing what your utility bill should be or ‘Am I using more than I need to?’ ” says Daniel Yates, president of OPOWER, in Arlington, Va., which analyzes SMUD customer energy use and pioneered using smiley faces. “You know people think a Prius is a good thing and a Humvee is bad,” he says. “Well, a lot of Prius owners have Humvee houses and don’t even know it.”

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 Frank’s team is working with the Western Massachusetts Elec­tricity 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 – take shorter showers, adjust thermostat settings, or hand-wash dishes.