Saving energy around the home is a pretty lonely task, so why not make a game of it? That’s the idea behind Simple Energy’s software that combines home energy technology and “game mechanics” in a way that’s gotten some San Diego Gas & Electric customers to cut their power bills in half -- at least, when a laptop or a Chevy Volt were among the potential prizes for doing so.

On Wednesday, Simple Energy announced Texas as its second target market. Utilities CenterPoint Energy and Oncor are launching a new energy saving contest via the Smart Meter Texas portal, the country’s largest single interface for sharing smart meter data. Simple Energy is running the platform that allows customers in the Houston and Dallas areas to sign up and participate, complete with a "Howdy, Texas!" splash page.

Of course, Simple Energy isn’t the first startup or IT giant to try to use Facebook-like features to get utility customers to engage in their energy use -- or to turn to Facebook to drum up participants, for that matter. But CEO and founder Yoav Lurie says the Boulder, Colo.-based startup’s method could yield unprecedented results.

“We use game mechanics to achieve measurable and verifiable energy efficiency results,” he said in an interview. In other words, getting customers to log on, get to know their neighbors and compete can actually yield deep and lasting efficiency results, according to Lurie.

That’s particularly true if a laptop is the potential reward, as it was in SDG&E’s contest. Launched as part of the White House-backed Biggest Energy Saver Campaign last summer, it featured Simple Energy's social media application running on Tendril's demand response platform. The winner, a 43-year-old woman who used Facebook and email to interact with the platform, cut her power use by nearly 50 percent. But she also unplugged appliances and turned off most of her lights as the contest neared its end to make sure she got there, Lurie said.

“It’s the same reason half of all Americans will buy a lottery ticket this year, or why grown men at a Giants game will literally pummel each other to get a free t-shirt that won’t fit them,” is how Lurie described the competitive effect. But will the same people who go to enormous efforts to win a prize -- Texas’s Biggest Energy Saver contest gave away two Chevy Volts -- keep up the pace once it’s over?

Lurie concedes that prizes are important to get people involved. But once they’re in the game, they tend to start taking pride in saving money, getting into conversations with friends and neighbors, and otherwise getting involved with the subject in a new way, driving long-term behavior changes, he said. They also buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, more efficient new appliances and other investments whose efficiency benefits don’t go away, he added.

There’s a natural comparison to be drawn with Opower, the Arlington, Va.-based startup that’s taken the utility world by storm with its mailed, emailed and texted energy alerts that drive predictable savings across broad groups of consumers. But while Opower is working with Facebook to build a social media community around energy saving, it mainly relies on the “push” of mailed reports and texted tips to get people to cut their energy use by two to four percent across the millions of homes where it’s being delivered.

One reason Opower gets such a high rate of participation is that utility customers have to actively opt out of getting the service. Getting utility customers to sign up for anything on their own -- that, is opting in -- is notoriously hard, with typical uptake rates of five percent or so.

Simple Energy tackled that problem “through deep social interaction, and by using game mechanics to drive people to sign up and to get their friends to play,” Lurie said. Apparently, it works: SDG&E achieved a 20 percent active opt-in rate among those offered a chance to participate in the contest, and Lurie’s hoping that Texas will yield even higher opt-in rates.

Once they’re online, participants can engage in both competitive and cooperative relationships, he noted -- Simple Energy’s Texas rollout will allow customers to form “teams” in support of charitable causes, for instance.

One more thing -- Simple Energy is collecting data, lots of it, for utilities to use. “We don’t just want energy hobbyists,” Lurie said. If enough customers sign up, the data flowing from them starts to give utilities “a level of data analysis they’ve never had before, at the system level, and at the customer-focus level,” he said. Capturing customer data’s value is something that home energy startups like Opower and Tendril are also going after.

How many utility customers might Simple Energy and other would-be Facebook-for-energy contenders be able to reach? U.S. CTO Aneesh Copra has asked the country's utilities to develop a "Green Button" system for easy exchange of customer energy data in a standard format, and California's three big utilities, including SDG&E, have said they'll do so this year. How quickly concepts like Green Button take off at large will be a good way to measure just how much like the internet the smart grid can become.

Tags: california, demand response, efficiency, energy efficiency, google, green building, opower, simple energy, smart grid, tendril, utilities