Keeping down with the Joneses

Before we purchased our house, we snuck a peak at the average utility bills for the family that owned it before us.

They were astronomical. And we knew we could do better.

The reasoning was twofold. First, we knew we couldn’t afford an electric bill that ran nearly three times that from our old house. Second was a matter of pride – that we are able to watch what we use. That, despite our inklings otherwise, we’re armchair conversationalists.

We were lucky enough to see the problem immediately – electric baseboard heating in a very cold basement, connected with its own thermostat, was used more often than needed with two pre-teen boys playing video games non-stop during the winter.

And, we were lucky enough to have something to compare to.

If you knew what your neighbors were using, would you work otherwise? If you could see how you shaped up on average – for example, if you were using less than the neighborhood average, or if you were using more and saw the cost differential – would you make arrangements to change your habits?

According to an article in The Atlantic, energy companies are betting that yes, you would.

It’s being tracked by a company named Positive Energy, and it a new wave of controlling costs through guilt or competition. According to the article:

”In Positive Energy’s reports, a once-intangible bit of social information—how much energy you use relative to your neighbors—is made tangible. Now you can find out not just what people in the same city are doing, but what people in your neighborhood, living in the same-size houses, are doing … but also with customized tips on how to do better.”

Will it work? So far, it has.

”…in Sacramento, where Positive Energy began its pilot program with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in 2008, people who received personalized “compared with your neighbors” data on their statements reduced their energy use by more than 2 percent over the course of a year. In energyspeak, a 2 percent reduction is huge; with the pilot sample of 35,000 homes, it’s the equivalent of taking 700 homes off the grid. And the cost to the utility is minor: for every dollar a utility spends on a solar power plant, it produces 3 to 4 kilowatt-hours; for every dollar a utility spends on the energy reports, it saves 10 times that.”

So, I say this to my local electric and gas companies: Go ahead. Guilt me into cutting back. Make me prove my ability to conserve.

It sounds like the type of challenge that we all could handle.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 1st, 2009