Wishing for a Smiley Face on the Electric Bill

September 6, 2010
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Kimberly Schwartz

It was a very warm, humid summer in Michigan. Which I enjoyed, because I like it when summer feels like summer. I think you should sweat a little in the summer; otherwise, there would never be a good reason to jump in the pool. And I know that more than a few contractors out there were also appreciative of the heat, especially when it increased their service calls.

But when the electric bill for July arrived, I suddenly wished I had let myself experience a little more of the summer heat.

Yes, you guessed it - the everyday use of my favorite relief-granting invention, the air conditioner, had caused the utility bill to soar painfully high.

It was a much higher bill than any I paid last summer, but this summer’s been so much warmer that I really can’t compare my 2010 bills to 2009.

What I really would like to know is if my husband and I are the ones at fault. Or has it been the type of summer where everyone’s bill has gone up just as much as ours?

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible for me to get an apples-to-apples comparison. I’m certainly not close enough with any of my neighbors to propose a party where we all compare our utility bills.

But I know there are people who actually do receive regular reports that compare their energy usage to their neighbors. And I’ll admit it - I’m jealous. Right now, I’d love to get my hands on that kind of information.

Not long ago, I read an article in The National Geographic about a software services company named OPower that is attempting to motivate people to reduce energy consumption with data reports that compare their average energy use to their neighbors.

On OPower’s website, the company states, “Using cutting-edge behavioral science and patent-pending data analytics, the OPower platform enables utilities to connect with their customers in a highly targeted fashion, motivating reductions in energy use, increased program participation, and overall customer satisfaction.”

What I learned with a little more reading is that the cutting-edge behavioral science consists mostly of smiley faces. Yep, that’s right, when utilities customers get their reports from OPower, they see a smiley face if their energy use is lower than their average neighbor’s use. It may sound simple, but it’s based on a social science theory that claims people are best influenced by a little healthy competition. And OPower’s reports also provide customers with actionable tips that provide advice targeted to the customer’s demographics for how to save energy.

Apparently, OPower has been getting good results with its novel approach. The company says that six of the 10 largest utility companies in the country are using its services, and it reports that over 80 percent of the households it has targeted have taken energy-saving actions in response to its reports. In addition to the National Geographic article, OPower has also been featured in The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and CNN.

I just wish they’d come set up shop in the Detroit area. A report with a smiley face telling me I used less energy than my neighbors is exactly what I wish I could see. Or even if I deserved a frowny face this summer, I’d still like to know how I rank.

With the natural competitive drive that my husband and I share, I know we’d start being more diligent about our energy use if we knew our neighbors were paying way less each month compared to us.

Maybe it’s time to call up my local utility and encourage them to get on the OPower bandwagon.

Publication date: 09/06/2010
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