Can your neighbors get you to change your energy consumption habits?

Energy Awareness and Behavioral Change

There are a number of ideas swirling around out there about how to get people to give up their long-held (and costly) habits of leaving lights on or running the dishwasher during peak hours. With energy prices going up and concerns about financial stability on the rise, this topic has caught the attention of homeowners and policymakers alike. One of the ideas gaining traction these days is that letting people in on how their consumption relates to those they are close to (at least in proximity) is just what it takes.

In some ways, this might seem counterintuitive. We’re all aware that having the most expensive watch or SUV or sofa can cause people to act pretty irrationally. However, keeping up is only a motivator when it comes to conspicuous consumption. In the privacy of one’s home, writing a bigger check to the utility company brings very little in the way of a personal reward.

Why our neighbors matter

Why we’re so ready to change our habits upon finding out that our neighbors are spending less isn’t so clear (After all, hefty energy bills alone haven’t convinced many of us). Alcott Hunt, a behavioral economist at MIT, says that people may be motivated by reasons from altruism and a desire to help the planet to a subconscious desire to fall in line with the norm. Or, he says, they could simply be self-interested and, when we find out our neighbors aren’t as wasteful, it causes us to figure out why we’re letting that extra cash slip away.

Companies are catching on

One of the more prominent features in the energy management software rolled out by industry giants Google and Microsoft this year is energy usage comparison. In addition measuring one’s current usage against past consumption, the Google PowerMeter allows users to share their usage data with family and friends. Hohm from Microsoft provides users with visual data showing how their energy consumption stacks up against others in their community. These services, and others like them, are bolstered by the current push toward smart meters and devices with built in energy monitoring capabilities (including those manufactured by this company).

Governments, too

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his support for amending the country’s utility bills to include such information. Programs such as this, he said, are an inexpensive way to improve quality of life through the use of available technologies.

These technologies are already being deployed with modest success by utility companies like National Grid, which saw an immediate drop after updating its electricity bills with comparative data.


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