You’ve put up your solar panels, turned down the thermostat, and spent a frustrating afternoon trying to make foam weather stripping stick to your window frames instead of your hair.  Meanwhile, your neighbor’s living room could be mistaken for a sauna but for the six-foot high plasma TV that’s on all day.  Why bother?
Your peers may be more influenced by your miserly ways than you realize.  Utilities, including SMUD in Sacramento, Opower in Virginia and National Grid in the Northeast, have discovered that when they show their customers how their energy usage compares with that of their neighbors, usage drops.  Information about how much energy others are using, especially information showing that others are taking steps to conserve energy, seems to exert peer pressure to conserve.  No one wants to be seen as the neighborhood energy hog.

An Opower customer’s bill contains a bar graph like this:

opower

The utilities’ peer pressure strategy is informed by advances in behavioral sciences that seek to understand what motivates individuals to change their energy use patterns.  In the March 2010 issue of Science, researchers from MIT and Harvard report that the cost of programs designed to encourage individuals to conserve energy pales in comparison with the cost of other greenhouse gas reduction tactics.  Eliminating a metric ton of CO2 with wind power, for example, costs $20; carbon capture at coal-fired power plants:  $44; behavior nudging programs:  -$165 (notice the negative sign there?).

One might think that with savings like that, the federal government would be falling over itself in its haste to ramp up programs aimed at improving individuals’ energy habits.  But when Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) proposed a modest $10 million Department of Energy program to simply study the prospects, talk radio host Glenn Beck warned of government mind control, and the bill was scrapped.

But the nudge strategy isn’t going away so fast.  Slate is running an “Efficient Life” contest where you can submit your favorite energy-saving ideas and vote on ideas others have posted.

So yes, keep up the good work-tighter windows, smaller TVs, warmer sweaters-just be sure to tell everyone all about it.

–Erica Etelson

Posted by Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy co-founded Sungevity and now serves as strategic advisor. He is an internationally recognized opinion leader on climate and energy issues. He is the author of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy - and Planet - from Dirty Energy (2012), a book that has been described as the clean energy manifesto for the next greatest generation.