The basic human instinct to compete against one’s closest neighbors for social status is part and parcel of the looming climate crisis. Keeping up with the Joneses basically means buying more and bigger stuff, including the energy to run the stuff. Channeling that competitive instinct into energy conservation is a task of Sisyphean proportions, but there could be a solution right in the palm of the ratepayer’s hand.
Energy Conservation & The Joneses
Part of the energy conservation challenge has to do with transparency. Ratepayers may have a rough idea about their neighbor’s energy consumption, based on the size of their house (or apartment) and other frills, like the number of lights on their Christmas displays.
But unless you ask, you don’t really know. The biggest house on the block could be enjoying the lowest monthly bills.
Portland General Electric is one utility company that is beginning to shed a little light on the subject.
In its latest sustainability report, PGE takes note of the different ways it is responding to its customers’ interest in managing their own energy. The company has been deploying digital technology — mobile phones, the Internet, email, and social media — to increase its ability to interact with customers.
That includes the ability to compare one’s energy use with the neighbors. According to PGE, the “vast majority” of its customers can track their hourly energy use, and compare it against similar homes nearby.
The ability to compare provides an opportunity for ratepayers to establish realistic energy conservation goals and take steps to reach them.
First Renewable Energy, Now Energy Conservation
As a utility based in the liberal-leaning city of Portland, Oregon, PGE does have the advantage of working with a customer base that is already primed to act on climate change.
However, the financial carrot alone can provide motivation, regardless of whether or not the ratepayer is engaged with climate action.
More to the point, there are now hundreds of climate-aware cities and towns across the US. The number of local governments engaging with climate action is also growing political walls, as the local economic and social benefits of carbon control become more apparent.
In a recent interview with CleanTechnica, PGE President and CEO Maria Pope expanded on the idea that transparency and information-sharing can accelerate climate action through energy conservation.
The basic idea is to maximize the effectiveness of building more renewable energy at the source.
“We are already 40 percent carbon free, and with advances in technology that make variable resources easier and cheaper we are moving rapidly. Next year will we will be at 50 percent,” Pope said. “The next step will be to interact with our customers in a much more real way, and use their energy resources.”
Pope noted that almost 25% of PGE customers participate in a voluntary green energy program. With a mixed-source grid, though, more fossil sources can still come into play during peak hours.
The aim now is to encourage customers to conserve during key periods, enabling PGE to maximize its use of green energy.
PGE already has a comprehensive energy management program in place for commercial ratepayers, where bottom line concerns are front and center.
Now the company has engaged in a “smart grid test bed” to see how voluntary conservation plays out among different residential customers, including those in economically challenged areas.
The residential program includes financial incentives, as Pope explains:
“We are working on voluntary curtailment via cell phone — and you get a rebate on your bill. Now people are competing with each other to see how much they are saving. You can track it like frequent flyer points.”
Energy Conservation & The Climate Factor
In the residential area, Pope sees the potential for leveraging the competitive drive to involve climate awareness, over and above the attractiveness of saving money.
“People really like to influence influence what the community is projecting on climate change,” she said. “Students want to participate, customers across the board want to participate; community leaders want to participate — it becomes a community exercise.”
The ultimate aim of PGE’s voluntary curtailment test is to demonstrate that utilities can ramp up participation into a scale that makes bottom line sense.
So far, things are going swimmingly. The program is seeing a much higher rate of participation and curtailment activity than anticipated.
New Math For Climate Action: 2+2 = 5
Voluntary curtailment programs are just part of a “next wave” in carbon control, in which additional strategies, technology, and infrastructure are deployed to maximize the carbon savings of renewable energy projects.
Hybrid renewables-plus-storage power plants are just beginning to come on the scene elsewhere around the country, and Pope anticipates that its scaled-up version will help accelerate interest in the technology.
“This project is important, because when you combine complementary technologies you can maximize assets, for example transmission assets,” she said, “So two plus two isn’t just four, it’s five and six.”
If that’s the kind of math that helps prevent catastrophic climate change, we’ll take it.
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Image (screenshot): via Portland General Electric.
Readers please note: PGE is not to be confused with PG&E. That’s a different company.