OPOWER announced today that it was selected by AEP Ohio to be the customer engagement platform used for the utility's smart grid deployment.

Starting later this summer, OPOWER will provide 70,000 homes with in-home energy data and advice. Unlike other home energy monitoring software, OPOWER's platform also includes good, old-fashioned mailed paper reports (yes, snail mail) along with access to the information through an online energy management portal.

The platform, described as advanced customer engagement, is both old school and new school -- an approach that OPOWER credits with its high penetration rate with consumers. Don't have a smart phone to track your electricity use? No problem. You don't even need a computer, as the company also offers individualized energy use info via postal mail as well as the telephone, creating a solution for homes that do not have internet access.

OPOWER's software is based on behavioral science and content customization. In December, OPOWER started a program in which power consumption for household heat can be studied separately from other energy demands. OPOWER says that about 85 percent of customers will cut their power consumption by around 3.5 percent. The Arlington-based company claims that its multi-channel platform is the only one that can achieve such substantial levels of customer engagement.

The approach is centered on what the company's chief scientist, Robert Cialdini, calls the "magnetism of the middle" -- in other words, keeping up with the Joneses -- but this time via cutting, rather than increasing, consumption. Let's be honest, most people are not looking to be the most energy-efficient house on the block. But no one wants to be the least efficient, either. The customized data lets people know much energy they're using in comparison to their neighbors and then follows it up with an actionable item.

When Joe finds out that his neighbors are 72 percent more efficient than him, for example, OPOWER then lets him know the level at which most of those folks are keeping their thermostat set. The bet is that Joe is probably going to adjust his thermostat to be in the same class as his neighbors, or at least to see the same money savings as them.

The concept of comparison amongst your peers is not completely unique to OPOWER, however. In the university realm, Lucid Design Group offers portals for different dorms, buildings, or even entire universities, to compare and compete for the most energy savings (however, Lucid does not include snail mail, as the campus crowd is generally pretty tech-savvy).

The tech-literate crowd aside, smart meter rollouts have proven that customers need to be engaged from the get-go. Many utilities wait until long after the initial smart meter installation to offer their customers energy management tools, and most energy management tools are focused online or through home portals (OPOWER offers those options, too).

At The Networked Grid conference, Alex Laskey, the President and Founder of OPOWER, challenged the premise that utilities need to wait for the infrastructure to be in place before getting customers on board. "If you look at what's happening in Bakersfield," he said, "it's increasingly apparent that we can't wait for all the infrastructure to be installed before addressing the customer. There's no reason you have to work on the backend before you work on the front end."

With customer engagement a hot topic (and a thorn in the side) of many utilities doing smart meter deployments, Laskey's point proves why OPOWER continues to win bids with utilities.

This recent partnership with AEP Ohio adds to OPOWER's partnership with 33 other utilities covering more than one million homes, including Commonwealth Edison, which selected the same platform as part of its large-scale smart grid pilot earlier this month.