Keeping up with the electricity-saving Joneses

If you knew how much energy your neighbor was conserving, would you clean up your own act?

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 22, 2009 8:58PM (EDT)

Your neighbor gets a fancy new Prius. The Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones syndrome suggests that you will be compelled to get an even fancier new hybrid. But what if you find out your neighbor has been using less electricity than you do? Do you suddenly feel that you must start switching out your incandescent bulbs for CFLs and barking at your children to turn the light off when they're finished using the damn bathroom?

According to a fascinating post at the L.A. Times' Greenspace blog by Susan Carpenter, (found via a tweet from Dennis Dimick), the answer is yes. If you provide customers with properly framed "peer comparison feedback" they will make significant and possibly lasting changes in their energy consumption.

Providing customers with information on how their energy use compares with their neighbors, along with specific energy-saving tips, has delivered dramatic results for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which has used so-called comparative home energy information since April 2008. Of the 35,000 homes that receive Home Energy Reports from the utility, 75 percent are taking action to cut their energy use, the result being an annual average savings of $40 per household and $20 to $30 per customer for the utility.

According to analysis of the results conducted by Yale's Ian Ayres, the "properly framing" aspect is critical. If you don't watch out, experiments like these can actually have a "boomerang" effect, in which people increase their energy usage once they know how profligate their neighbors are. But, and this, to me, is the most amazing part, OPOWER's deft use of smileyface and frowny face emoticons sterilized the boomerang effect.

One particularly interesting note from Ayres' number crunching:

In both experiments, households in the treatment group with lower house values saved more, on average, than households with higher house values.

Which says to me: McMansion-dwelling rich bastards just don't give a bleep.

I'm not sure what to make of Ayres' conclusion, however:

Finally, the Positive Energy/oPower experiments suggest that privately-delivered peer comparison feedback, such as direct mailings, might prove an effective tool in a range of other situations. There are endless ways public or private entities might employ such feedback to drive desired behavior. Schools might mail parents reports of how many absences or times late their children had compared to peers. Dentists might send mailings to their infrequent visitors indicating how often typical patients come in for cleanings. A gym might inform its lazier patrons of how often typical members work out. Government might even step in to require private entities conduct this type of reporting where it believes there are significant welfare gains. To take one example, the federal government might require that employers inform low-saving employees how much more their peers are saving in the company 401(k) plan. As these preliminary examples show, the area of peer comparison feedback is ripe for innovation and experimentation.

I'm all for saving energy, but let's not get too carried away with the social engineering, OK? I mean, talk about your nanny states....

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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