Most Americans would have a fit if their credit card or cell phone company sent a dollar amount at the end of the month with no itemized description to match. But we tolerate it from our utility companies with little complaint. If we’re going to change our energy habits, we’re going to need more information to do it. What kinds of information motivate consumers and what kinds irritate them? OPOWER, an energy efficiency software company, is betting that a new version of an old classic — the report card — will strike the right balance.
OPOWER generates energy efficiency report cards, which utilities then send with customer bills. A colorful bar graph compares the recipient’s monthly energy consumption to his or her neighbors’. No names are used: The comparison is based on the average use of 100 neighbors with similar-sized houses. A second chart compares the recipient’s use to his or her most energy-efficient neighbors’. Those who do well get a smiley face; those at the top of their energy class get two. (There are no frowny faces.)
The idea is that the easy-to-understand graphics show consumers how much lower their bills could be and motivate them to get there with a mix of positive reinforcement and good, old-fashioned peer pressure. Recipients generally save 2 to 3 percent — which ain’t enough to combat climate change, but it is significant.