From Leslie Kaufman at the New York Times Green blog
So, would you stop washing your clothes in warm water if your best friend tried doing it in cold and said her jeans were coming out clean? Would you be more likely to weatherize your house if your college roommate said that it had cut her heating bill by 30 percent? And if your mom got one of those power strips that turn off devices that suck electricity in the middle of the night, would you do the same?
In 2009 I wrote about a company (now called Opower) that blends behavioral science and data analysis to find ways to help utilities get their customers to use less electricity. At the time, it was enabling power companies to send out bills comparing customers’ energy usage with that of their neighbors. Smiley faces adorned the bills of energy-efficient users; their less-efficient neighbors got frowns.
The thinking behind all this, of course, is that it’s not so much factual information that motivates behavioral change — knowing that smoking is bad for you, or that most electricity generation emits heat-trapping carbon dioxide – but the way that such information plays off social relationships and creates peer pressure. Now the company is harnessing social media to further that kind of psychological connection as well.
Teaming with Facebook, energy conservation advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, Opower released a a new app on Tuesday that will allow interested parties in 20 million households served by 16 utilities to post their energy use on their Facebook pages and invite friends to do so as well. The option is available from participating utilities in California, New York and points in between.
Only a few months ago, the White House challenged utilities to enable their customers to download information on their energy usage in what it described as a “Green Button” initiative. Many followed suit, and the Obama administration has called for the creation of more social-media apps to capitalize on this phenomenon.
Opower’s founder, Alex Laskey, said the company’s new app would allow anyone who signed up to automatically upload their usage data from their local utility to their Facebook page and then invite friends to do the same and compare notes on their efforts to save energy. The app could be used to share tips on what works in a community-support forum.
In homes with smart meters, the information on energy use is quite detailed, Mr. Laskey said. So by using computer modeling that takes other variables like weather and humidity into effect, consumers will be able to compare the energy they consume by, say, running air-conditioning in the summertime.
“The utility industry is not known for its cutting-edge customer service, mostly because they’re regulated monopolies,” Mr. Laskey said. “However, that is changing in a profound way — social networking, alerts, sophisticated usage analysis reports, et cetera.”
“We’re seeing one of our oldest, most important industries change in a very fundamental way right before our eyes,” he added.