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DOE's app winner: $ not only motivator

The classic knock against home energy management is that saving $6 per month is meaningless and not likely to motivate anyone to invest their time or purchase a technology that might aid them. 

(Six dollars is an arbitrary number representing the average monthly savings for a household using energy data feedback to conserve.) 

Others say that if households save $6 per month and that also reflects a lower environmental impact, and many people do it, then the sum is a societal gain—and that's reason enough to do it. 

To judge from recent conversations, the divide between the two views is generational. 

The younger generation is said to be self-absorbed, lost in their gadgets, distracted by incessant stimuli. This just in: twenty-somethings at least can envision and may be willing to take small personal actions that add up to societal benefits. It's old codgers who see $6 per month as a barrier to participation. 

Yes, it's more complicated than that and research reflects multiple drivers and demographics around home energy management. But let's look at the thinking by Gen Y, which is a sequel to my column last week, "The Apps are Coming! The Apps are Coming!" That column looked at the U.S. Department of Energy's contest for software applications that could translate home energy data via the Green Button into a behavior-changing tool. 

App developers typically are younger folks. They don't need deep knowledge around utility systems or home energy management to "get it." 

So I spoke to one of the winning app developers to gauge his thinking. Meanwhile, one codger wrote in, pooh-poohing the notion that an app might motivate him to do something beyond what economics dictated. He said that he used to car pool because it saved wear and tear on his car. 

Gotcha! Today, kids might car pool because it's fun, reduces traffic and cuts carbon emissions. Perhaps those past "a certain age" might really be the "Me Generation" and Gen Y might be the "We Generation." 

Enter: Tim Edgar. Edgar is one half of Leafully (Nathan Jhaveri is the other half), which won first place in the DOE contest, as judged by a panel. (The results from popular voting should be announced today.) 

Edgar is a 26-year-old program manager for Microsoft who attended the University of California at Berkeley. His meager experience with utility operations or consumer behavioral change derived from his participation in a "Green Apartment" exercise in school that demonstrated behavioral tactics for sustainable energy practices. 

His girlfriend alerted him to the DOE contest. As he delved, he was struck by the energy density of American lifestyles, while acknowledging the incremental savings to be gained from, say, cutting back air conditioning on a hot summer day.  

"Intuitively, I knew that there had to be a larger reason for energy-saving behavior," Edgar told me last week.

Minimizing environmental impacts is a mainstream, communal value, he offered, perhaps unaware of the challenge of motivating slugs of a "certain age" to join him and his generation. 

The challenge was to create an app that would be meaningful in that bigger sense. So he calculated the impacts of various energy consumption behaviors and provided a tool whereby the user could cut back on those impacts and see those actions in terms of trees planted. The scientific soundness of that specific logic aside, Edgar and Jhaveri succeeded in developing an idea and a visual icon that consumers could understand. 

They were not talking kilowatt hours. They were talking about incremental personal actions that add up to societal gains. 

"The best way for consumers to effect change is to use their purchasing power wisely," Edgar said. "Consumers can move the market with their dollars." 

The purpose of Green Button and these apps is to give utilities tools to affect consumer behavior. Perhaps unwittingly, Edgar's free market insight also gives third parties—many of whom, indeed, are already on this track—the basis to offer what utilities cannot or will not offer them: energy management options with a societal component.

Edgar would like to make his app universally applicable and provide further options, such as guidance in selecting energy efficient appliances.  

Earth-shattering? Nah. Eye opening? Potentially. Here's a demographic that doesn't base its decisions on incremental value propositions solely on what's in it for them. And here's a tool to reach them. This sort of innovation, when crowd-sourced, costs very little. But it engages one demographic and may produce valued behavior, particularly when many people do it. Like any mass adoption of a new behavior, it will begin with a few and grow virally. (For those of a "certain age," that means "by word of mouth.")

Utilities are grasping for ideas on how to connect with their customers and encourage behavior that meshes with utility constraints. How can the Tim Edgars of the world and their ideas not be a good thing? 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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