In a simple step, using basic social-psychology, utilities could create a nearly immediate cut in electricity usage. And I think it could be a big one.
British conservative, David Cameron, explains the idea quickly speaking at a TED conference recently (10:53 into the speech). With a backround in sociology, I am immediately inclined to to dig into the idea a little further.
Simple Social-Psychology — Friendly Competition & Social Pressure
As long as we live in a capitalistic society, competition is part of the game. This electricity bill scheme uses our socially-ingrained (if not natural) competition for good in our own neighborhood setting. Ever hear of “keeping up with the Jones'”? Well, this is keeping up with the Jones’ by keeping your electricity use down.
On your monthly electricity bill, instead of just showing you how much electricity you used, the bill would show you the average electricity usage of your neighbors and the electricity usage of your most energy efficient neighbors.
Of course, not everyone would care or even look at that part of the bill (although, with good design, it would be hard to miss), but I think a lot of people would look, would be interested, would care, and would feel inclined to cut their electricity use to get down to the average, get closer to the most efficient (maybe even take the lead), or keep the lead.
Even beyond the competitive aspect of it all, it would give people better perspective and contextual understanding of their electricity use. You probably see the amount of electricity you used on your monthly bill, but this is very abstract until you compare it to something else (another month or, perhaps in the future, your neighbors’). This would help us to make our abstract electricity usage a little less abstract. It tells you, at the least, what the social norm is.
In Use in Over 1 Million US Homes
USA Today reports that this is already happening in some places. “More than 1 million U.S. households now receive reports on how their energy consumption compares with their neighbors as utilities encourage conservation, some with smiley faces for those doing well.”
Michael Graham Richard of Treehugger reports that this has had a modest effect on electricity usage so far, but this is just the beginning and there are great ways to make this idea even more effective.
“So far the reductions in electricity consumption in the houses that have those bills has been relatively small (2-3%), but that number is expected to keep climbing, and there are not doubt ways to make the bills have an even bigger impact (f.ex. you could print a different energy-saving tip of them each time, give URLs to websites with tips, etc). There’s also a good chance that when the recession is over, more people will be willing to spend money to make their houses more energy efficient (insulation, electronic thermostats, Energy Star appliances, high-efficiency furnaces, etc).”
Plus, although 2-3% doesn’t sound like a lot, “[t]he Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which started sending the reports to 35,000 households in 2008, says the households saved enough energy in a year to power 800 homes for a year,” according to Julie Schmit of USA Today.
Clever. Simple. And, potentially, very effective. Hope to see that on my electricity bill soon.
Image Credit: wizetux via flickr under a CC license