Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Conservation emulation

I received an interesting message from West Penn Power (our electricity company) the other day.

I thought it was a bill, so I'd put it aside with other bills to pay.  But it turned out to be something much more interesting - a comparison of our electricity consumption to that of similar-sized households in our neighborhood.  Here's a snippet from the letter (this is for the most recent 2 months).

Wow! We are more efficient (by a few percent) than the average of our "efficient neighbors" (studying the fine print reveals that that means those in the lowest quintile of energy consumption in comparable-sized houses).  I feel pleased to have gotten two smiley faces - maybe my efforts with TED are paying off! - and motivated to keep our lead over our neighbors.  (Now, if I could only get one of those chili peppers over on RateMyProfessors as well...)

There have been academic studies of these kind of efforts (for instance this one, which seems to be about exactly the same kind of information that I received from West Penn Power), and they show that simply telling people how their power consumption compares with their neighbors' produces sustained community-wide power savings.  The effect is "equivalent to that of a short-run electricity price increase of 11-20%" - not enough to save the world, but a substantial payback for sending out a bunch of letters. 

Of course you might worry that, now I know that we use less (electrical) energy than our neighbors, I might be tempted to relax my energy vigilance a bit - maybe I can run the A/C more and still come out better than average?   The study cited above looked for this kind of "rebound effect", but didn't find it.  And it does not really fit with the competitive spirit: if I am winning a race in which there are ten runners, will I be satisfied to drop back to fourth place just because I will still be better than average?  I have some questions about the value of competition but here at least it seems to be working in our favor!

Further reading:

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