Saturday, January 31, 2009

Keeping Down With The Jonses - California Style

Every now and then a really good, delightfully simple idea comes along - one of those "why didn't I think of that?" moments.

California is the home of a lot of leading-edge ideas, most, but not all, of them good and this is a good one. To get homeowners to conserve electricity, utilities are experimenting with monthly statements that compare the customer's energy usage with the average in that neighbourhood and then with what their really efficient neighbours use. From The New York Times:

The district had been trying for years to prod customers into using less energy with tactics like rebates for energy-saving appliances. But the traditional approaches were not meeting the energy reduction goals set by the nonprofit utility’s board.

So, in a move that has proved surprisingly effective, the [Sacramento] district decided to tap into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel.
The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements — an improvement that Alexandra Crawford, a spokeswoman for the utility, said was very encouraging.

The approach has now been picked up by utilities in 10 major metropolitan areas eager to reap rewards through increased efficiencies, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Positive Energy, the software company that conceived of the reports and contracts to produce them. Following Sacramento’s lead, they award smiley faces only.

Two per cent doesn't sound like much but it's a good start and it supports research showing that, when trying to motivate behaviour of consumers, few techniques are as effective as comparing individuals to their peers.

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