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"Smiley Faces" Take On the Problem of Energy Efficiency Not Being "Sexy" Enough

2 min. read

We've written previously about how energy efficiency makes a tremendous amount of sense, both economically and environmentally, yet many people continue to view it as an "eat your peas" technology or as not "sexy".  That's unfortunate, because as Jennifer Layke of the Johnson Controls-funded Institute for Building Efficiency (IBE) has explained, the potential from energy efficiency is enormous. The question is, how do we overcome the psychological barriers standing in the way of achieving this potential?  According to this article in Slate, we may now have an important part of the answer - "smiley faces and peer pressure."

How can I convince you to conserve energy? I could remind you that using less power saves money and helps the environment, but you won’t listen. Studies have proven that appeals to cost and conservation have no impact on people’s energy consumption.

At the heart of Opower’s software is the behavioral nudge—a gentle push toward the right decision. Perhaps the most infamous such example was implemented in the Amsterdam airport, where painting flies on urinals reduced spillage by 80 percent. (If you give a man a target, he can’t help but aim.)

That’s the theory driving Opower, a company that’s helped millions of people lower their energy bills. Rather than sell or produce energy, it makes software—software that is changing the way Americans consume energy by setting them in a contest against their neighbors. In the process, Opower has discovered that when it comes to energy efficiency, conscientiousness doesn’t inspire nearly as much change as competition (and a little judgment).

But what if I told you everyone in your neighborhood is reducing their energy consumption—except you? Would competition and a little fear of judgment convince you to switch off your air conditioner?...

...In addition to giving you feedback on your energy use, the [Opower report to electric power customers] includes a bar graph that compares your own energy consumption with your community’s average and that of your community’s most energy efficient households—all of which can be helpful. But the real key is one last box: a grade assessing your energy consumption. You receive two smiley faces for great conservation (that is, using less than 80 percent of what your neighbors do), one for good (using less than most of your neighbors do), none for bad (using more than most of your neighbors). As soon as customers recived their first reports and saw the smiley face box, they began increasing their energy efficiency.

There's more to it than that, of course, but the concept is a powerful one: peer pressure and the inherent tendency of humans to want to do better than their neighbors can result in real changes to behavior. That certainly may not be "sexy," but if it helps beat the "eat your peas" syndrome for energy efficiency, we'll take it!