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Energy report card aims to boost conservation

Bills to compare power use among neighbors

The monthly report to customers will compare that household’s energy use with area households, but not identify other users. The monthly report to customers will compare that household’s energy use with area households, but not identify other users.
By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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Want to know who is the energy hog or miser in your neighborhood? Some National Grid utility customers in Massachusetts will soon have a hint in the mail.

Starting today, 50,000 National Grid customers in the Boston area will receive a monthly report that compares their energy habits with those of their neighbors. The reports won’t identify individual households in the area, but rather will compare the customer’s electric or gas usage against the average of the nearest 100 households of similar size, and against the 20 most energy-thrifty homes in the area.

The reports will also provide the customer’s last 12 months of gas or electric usage, and offer suggestions on cutting back - such as turning off computers at night, getting a programmable thermostat, or upgrading a heating system. Customers will also be measured against a goal National Grid has set for them: cutting energy consumption by 3 percent each year over the next decade.

“There’s obviously a little bit of a competitive aspect to it, to see if you can one-up your neighbors in terms of energy savings,’’ said Monica Ibrahim, program manager for the National Grid pilot.

The consumption reports are being provided by OPower, an energy efficiency software company in Virginia that has utilities in eight states conducting similar experiments. In Sacramento, Calif., customers have reduced energy consumption by roughly 2.5 percent since receiving OPower’s reports for about 16 months, said Alex Laskey, OPower’s president.

“What we recognize is that though most people want to save energy . . . very few of them have either the time or the wherewithal to become experts on their own energy usage,’’ Laskey said.

The average household in Massachusetts uses 635 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, said that making personal energy consumption public is generally “a good thing’’ that will motivate image-conscious consumers to dial back.

“I think that is why the Prius is so popular. You can see me driving a Prius,’’ Ariely said. “You really can’t see me changing to carbon fluorescent light bulbs.’’

The trick, Ariely said, will be to deliver information in a way that makes people want to improve. Show them how they rate next to the average energy user, rather than the best or worst, he suggested, and then tell them when they make progress.

OPower’s home energy reports are popular among 40,000 Connexus Energy customers in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area who are participating in the experiment, said Bruce Sayler, the utility’s manager of regulatory affairs.

“The number one thing that they’ve done is shut off their computer at night,’’ Sayler said, adding that customers in the pilot are on track to save $20 to $25 a year.

A few, he added, have reservations.

“One of the concerns is that it’s being Big Brother, [that] our job is to just sell them electricity, that we shouldn’t be telling them to conserve,’’ Sayler said. But only 360 households elected to opt out of the program.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of the consumer advocate Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said she would love more information about how her energy consumption stacks up against the neighborhood - as long as it isn’t so detailed that she or her neighbors can tell which house is using what.

“I would say that information is power for consumers, and in these times we need all the power - with nothing plugged in - that we can get to educate ourselves to use less energy,’’ Domenitz said.

National Grid has 1.2 million electric customers and about 800,000 natural gas customers in Massachusetts. So far, it is the only one of the state’s four investor-owned utilities to try out this idea.

National Grid selected the customers at random, and those who don’t want to participate can opt out. Ibrahim said National Grid is paying OPower $10 per customer annually for the comparison reports, with the money coming out of an energy conservation fund to which consumers already contribute. Participants will not have to pay extra to be in the pilot.

Ibrahim said that if National Grid customers conserve as much as the utility expects, households will save $50 a year on their electricity bill, on average, or $27 in natural gas.

“The reports do have smiley faces if the customers are doing well,’’ Ibrahim added. “Two smiley faces if you’re great, one smiley face if you’re good.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.