As utilities seek to cut energy use, one of the tactics they’re employing is encouraging customers to modify their habits.
And while data is limited on how effective these behavior-focused programs are, some recent reports show promising results.
Four rural electric co-ops in Minnesota, for instance, were able to reduce demand in 2013 between 1.8 percent and 2.8 percent using MyMeter -- a program that gives utility customers more detailed information about their energy use.
While the results trended slightly higher than those of two other carefully evaluated programs in Massachusetts, their importance goes beyond that. More significant, according to an expert in behavioral energy-saving programs, is the fact that the report adds to the very limited set of reliable data out there about the effectiveness of behavioral strategies.
“The more data we have at a large scale, the more interested utilities are in using [behavioral strategies],” said Susan Mazur-Stommen, the director of behavior and human dimensions research for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. She wrote a “field guide” to behavioral energy-saving programs that was published in December.
An independent evaluation firm, Illume Advising, verified the results of the MyMeter software and communications product that was used by the four co-ops. Mazur-Stommen described Illume Advising as “tops, in terms of evaluation.”
The Minnesota Department of Commerce then accepted the results and allowed the four co-ops to count the energy savings toward state-mandated goals.
The behavioral approach works by providing customers with feedback about their energy use, and it is “definitely growing,” Mazur-Stommen said. “It’s getting hotter every year.”
But further growth, she said, is largely tied to having access to reliable data on past performance. That’s where the latest findings on MyMeter enter the picture.
“Behavioral programs that can do that are very rare,” she said. “This joins a rare echelon of winners.”
How behavioral programs work
Behavioral programs rely on smart meters, which allow electrical utilities to tell their customers with increasing detail exactly when they are using electricity. The data can typically be accessed via a website or smartphone app.
While a typical utility bill only calculates usage over a 30-day period, the opt-in MyMeter program allows users to log into a website and view their usage in fifteen-minute increments as soon as four hours after the fact. It also charts the daily temperature and offers the customers the option of:
• Setting an energy-saving goal and following progress toward it
• Tracking major changes in household energy use due to, say, purchase of a new appliance
• Notification from the utility of a peak in demand for electricity (power often costs more per kilowatt-hour during peak periods)
• Establishing an energy threshold (e.g., 10 percent above consumption one year ago) and signing up for alerts when the threshold is passed.
• Comparing usage to one’s own history, as well as to other nearby users
Accelerated Innovations, the St. Paul company that distributes MyMeter, is working on providing even more immediate feedback. It is now running a pilot in India that allows participants to log in to a website and see how much power they are using at that moment, even getting information about how much each electrical appliance is using.
MyMeter’s creator, Josh Headlee, developed the program to respond to customer complaints and questions. More recently, it became apparent that the software and communications program could serve another function.
“Now it can help utilities that have to meet an efficiency mandate,” said Mark Brown, the company’s chief operating officer.
Accelerated Innovations is working with about 30 utilities, many of them in Minnesota, but a few as far away as Texas and Hawaii. Headlee, the company’s founder and CEO, said he’s signed a deal to provide his program to a large utility in North Carolina which will use it with commercial energy customers.
“It’s going to be a game-changer for us in terms of size,” he said. “Hopefully we can take this to millions of customers.”
"Engaged" versus "passive" users
The past year’s experience at the four Minnesota power co-ops made it clear that reductions in electricity use are greatest among two groups: people who used the most power at the outset, and those who were most “engaged,” as indicated by how often, and for how many months, they logged in to the MyMeter website.
“Passive” users who received alerts but didn’t log in to the website to learn about the details of their use, cut consumption by about 2.25 percent. Customers who engaged actively with the website for at least six months reduced their consumption by 4.09 percent.
“Increased engagement leads to increased savings,” Headlee said.
For example, a customer at one of the Minnesota co-ops was able to diagnose a malfunctioning water pump after questioning a large bill for a cabin they visited only occasionally.
In addition, the evaluation revealed that reduced energy use to a large extent persisted, in spite of the fact that persistence has often been a missing factor in past pilots using a behavioral approach. According to the evaluation, average energy savings were 2.27 percent among customers who used the system for one or two years, and fell slightly to 1.88 percent among those who used it for three years. Among customers of the Wright Hennepin power co-op, savings have largely persisted for the seven years of the program.
Purcell, the co-op’s customer-service supervisor, said MyMeter has opened up some new possibilities for her customers.
“The tools are there so that those who want to do something it can.”
Karen Uhlenhuth is a reporter with Midwest Energy News. This article was originally published at Midwest Energy News and was reprinted with permission.