When launched earlier this year, Britain's Green Deal was hailed by proponents as a triumph for energy efficiency. The program was modeled around an on-bill repayment model, which allows utility customers to pay back efficiency retrofits on their utility bills.
But nine months after starting, only twelve homes have actually gotten retrofits under the program out of 71,000 audits. The goal is to retrofit 14 million homes within a decade. Proponents say the Green Deal is just getting started and are asking for patience. Critics say they want to abolish the program altogether.
So what could give it a boost? In a 2011 report, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) hinted at one possible solution when the Green Deal was first being crafted: behavioral science.
"We know that people are more likely to change their behavior when presented with small, simple tasks over which they feel they have control and [which] are achievable in the short term," wrote the authors.
The department outlined a number of programs that could stimulate behavior changes and increase demand for efficiency: collective product purchasing, rewards such as retail vouchers or short-term tax holidays, and the use of data to compare neighbors' energy use.
The last option is why Opower, a fast-growing American efficiency company rooted in behavioral science, is moving into Britain.
This week, Opower announced a partnership with the European mega-utility, E.ON, to provide an online tool using smart meter data that will help homeowners compare their energy use to 100 anonymous customers around them.
"Our expertise in behavioral science, data analytics and consumer marketing, combined with our successful utility deployments worldwide have shown that customers are motivated to behave more like their peers," said Nandini Basuthakur, the managing director for Opower's European, Middle Eastern and African operations, in a statement.
Opower is not in Britain explicitly to help with the Green Deal (although it has been working with the DECC and a U.K. power company, First Utility, on a pilot related to the program using its home energy reports). The expansion is part of its effort to move deeper into Europe and beyond.
Over the last year and a half, Opower has expanded its staff in London to ramp up utility partnerships, which currently amount to 90 around the world. The deal with E.ON -- a utility with 5 million gas and electricity customers -- allows Opower to step deeper into the British market.
The U.K. initially set a goal to install smart gas and electric meters on all homes by 2019. However, that goal is also behind schedule, and the target date has been pushed back a year. Because electricity and gas is fully deregulated there, utilities have had problems with vendor selection, customer participation and interoperability across a fragmented market.
On top of the smart meter delays, utilities have faced problems rolling out the IT infrastructure to handle the Green Deal program.
Into this sea of complications jumps Opower, which is used to dealing with a patchwork of utilities across the U.S. -- many of which have their own issues managing customer data. If its online toolkit with E.ON is effective, it could help raise the profile of behavioral analytics where they're needed at other energy providers.
It would be a stretch to say that a company like Opower can come in and fill in the gaps where the Green Deal is lacking (nor is Opower making that claim). After all, it hasn't yet used its platform to do what program administrators want most: get customers to retrofit their homes.
Opower's service has been effective at saving 2 percent to 4 percent of energy within U.S. residences. While that adds up to major savings across a wide swath of customers, it still doesn't get contractors through the door. But as the DECC so accurately predicted in its 2011 report on behavioral science, the Green Deal needs to boost customer participation by pinpointing the levers that help people make decisions.
The "behavioral insights literature gives us powerful clues about what blocks behavior and what might work to make it easier and more appealing for people to change their consumption. We need to approach the issue with a degree of humility and pragmatic experimentation," concluded the report.
Opower has been pretty effective at finding what makes consumers tick. Administrators of the Green Deal clearly need to find that out as well.
It may seem ironic that a relative newcomer from America -- a country that uses eleven times the energy as Britain and Northern Ireland -- could potentially offer a nudge to the slow-moving program. But with such low participation levels, the Green Deal may indeed need a little "humility and experimentation."
Here's a peek at E.ON's toolkit, supported by Opower's analytics: