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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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“We’re like Weight Watchers for your energy use,” says Mr. Frank, Efficiency 2.0’s executive vice president for business development. “Most Americans would like to lose weight, but they don’t do it because they don’t get feedback. We provide that feedback [to cut energy use].”

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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 didn’t 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, she’s 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 hasn’t won her a smiley face yet, though. Until recently, her page sported a frowny face because she’s doing better on energy use than only 25 percent of the community at large. She would like to be competing against a group of “energy friends,” but doesn’t have any since the site has only been running a month.

“This is really a very powerful tool and I like it a lot,” Penner says. “The motivation from it is pretty strong. People really don’t like getting the frowny faces.” (In fact, SMUD and others have nixed frowny faces after some negative reactions.)

Commonwealth Edison, a Chicago-area utility, is pleased overall with its program, which is similar to SMUD’s.

“In a few cases we’ve been accused of being agents of some secret service spying on them,” says Val Jensen, vice president for marketing and environmental programs for Commonwealth Edison. “But that kind of reaction has been in the low single digits. Only one homeowner has said, ‘Stop sending me this.’ ”

When Dennis Boland, a stock-index trader from Glenview, Ill., got his new home energy report from Commonwealth Edison last month, he was aghast.

The report showed that the 20 most efficient homes in Mr. Boland’s neighborhood used about 587 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month, while his group of 100 neighbors used 1,150 kWh per month. And Boland’s home? Try 1,987 kWh monthly – 92 percent more than the average.

“My first observation when I read the report was: ‘I am a pig!’ ” he says. “I knew I was paying a lot every month for electricity, but I thought everyone was. I didn’t know I was such a glutton.”

Even though it made him feel guilty, Boland says he was also grateful. Now he’s changing his thermostat setting to reduce his air-conditioning load and looking for other ways to save energy – and money.

He’s eager to see the next report to determine if he’s off the “below average” list. “I hope more power companies will pick up on this,” he says, “and not be afraid to tell their users: ‘You’re below average’ or maybe, ‘You’re a pig!’ ”

[Editor's Note: The original version of this article referred to OPOWER by its previous name, Positive Energy.]