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Nothing Like Some Friendly Neighborly Competition

Over at SolveClimate, Renee Cho reports that Massachusetts is embarking on a simple yet ingenious way to get people to conserve energy: just send them reports showing how much power they're using compared with their neighbors. This has been tried elsewhere. Last summer, Sacramento's municipal utility tried out a similar program, and energy use in the area has dropped about 2.8 percent this year. Getting these report cards in the mail really does seem to motivate people to switch off their lights more, install CFLs, shut down their computers at night, and even take bigger steps like insulating their windows. Anything to beat the folks next door.

And, looking ahead, a number of companies are now creating web apps that will let people monitor their usage more frequently and rout out waste to save money. This could be one of the cheapest and easiest ways to tamp down energy demand and cut power-plant emissions. As Cho notes, there are all sorts of psychological studies underpinning these programs—they seem to awaken our competitive instincts. It's like how people alter their driving behavior so as to conserve gas when there's a gauge on their dashboard telling them how much mileage they're getting at any given moment.

One thing about this program, though: Since conservation cuts into a utility's sales of electricity, it's only really catching on in states where utilities are either required to pursue a certain amount of efficiency savings, or else in states like California and Washington where utility profits are "decoupled" from the amount of power they sell. (There are a lot of different decoupling techniques, but the basic idea is that regulated utilities receive a fixed revenue and can then earn their profits by cutting costs through efficiency, rather than by sending as many electrons through their wires as possible.) I got into the pros and cons of decoupling in my recent mag piece on utilities, but suffice to say there are a lot of artificial barriers standing in the way of simple conservation, and basic policy changes can bring forth a lot of creative ideas—like this one—on how to waste less.

(Flickr photo credit: jeff lamb)