Friday, April 24, 2009

Keeping Up With the Joneses

An employee at Austin Energy (AE) came into my Sustainable Urban Development Class last week to speak about the Pecan Street Project. The project has the simple mission of making “the city of Austin into America's clean energy laboratory – a place for researchers and entrepreneurs to develop, test, and implement the urban power system of the future."

According to the AE employee involved in the development of project, a second tier goal is to reduce the energy consumption of residents through the use of technology. There are a couple of ideas being thrown around the halls of AE, one of which is to send text messages to consumers when electricity prices are abnormally high. The hope is that people will be financially motivated to reduce consumption when prices are high. A more futuristic idea is having cell phones that are capable of powering down appliances in a home. This way, when I leave my house I can shut down all non-essential appliances (the fridge clearly needs to stay on) with my cell phone and conserve energy when I am not home.

These approaches are all well and good, but there is an easy, effective method to motivate residential energy conservation that can be implemented immediately. How? A software company called Positive Energy has worked with several utility companies around the nation to create report cards that rate residents’ energy use compared to similar size homes that use the same heating fuel. The residents are also compared to neighboring households that are very energy efficient. Consumers receive one smiley face if they fair better than their like-size counterparts and two smiley faces if they conserve more energy than their energy efficient neighbors.

The model sounds simple, but it works. Sacramento was one of the first testing grounds for Positive Energy. Six months into the program the Sacramento utility conducted an assessment and concluded that residents who received Positive Energy’s report card reduced their monthly energy use by two percent compared to residents who received normal statements. Two percent may seem minor, but if you multiply it across thousands of households the energy savings add up quickly. Positive Energy has signed contracts with 10 other large metropolitan areas after Sacramento’s assessment.

Providing a relative measure for people to gauge their own energy use is a novel approach to energy conservation. Being a competitive person, I know I would change my habits if I knew my neighbors were kicking my butt in the energy conservation game.

Additional Source:
Kaufman, Leslie. Utilities Turn Their Customers Green, With Envy; New York Times; January 2009.


Divya said...

The approach adopted by Positive Energy seems very simple but efficient enough, atleast for now. It's really an irony that previously all we used to be concerned about is the 'more demand, more supply' concept, but now the trend is changing for the good (in few selected sectors). When we see that the whole environmental effects and climate change problems scenario is being taken at a personal level, it really shows how much the planet needs every individual's contribution. Guess methods like these is a stepping stone a huge revolution yet to come. Hopefully!

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Google Power Meter project?

rmk said...

This seems so easy to enact that I'd say it's worth the experiment! We could look not only at a monthly comparison of our own household in relation to neighbors, similar-sized houses, or average residential customers; but potentially we could look at other cities or compare our use from one year to the next. Businesses do this with financial information...I wonder what we could learn from some of these patterns!

taylor12 said...

There are still so many ways that Austin energy could encourage people to be more energy efficient. If there were a "model" house that was installed with all energy efficient appliances, lightbulbs, etc... that house could then be used to compare actual AE customer's homes. Perhaps then AE customer's would understand the benefits of starting to conserve energy on a daily basis rather than just when electricity rates would be abnormally high.