Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, March 23, 2023

Are You As Green As Your Neighbors? 

<p>Opower, a company that helps consumers make smarter decisions about their energy use, relies on a quirk of human nature to help facilitate energy savings: peer pressure.</p>

Opower, a company that helps consumers make smarter decisions about their energy use, relies on a quirk of human behavior to help facilitate energy savings. When people are told that their energy usage is excessive in comparison with their neighbors, they will respond by bringing their usage in line with the perceived norm. Peer pressure and competition are powerful motivators.

Opower creates software with this in mind by putting Americans in a contest against their neighbors. The company has teamed up with energy producers to monitor the energy consumption of its customers. It then produces detailed reports showing when the most energy was used, what appliances are most wasteful, etc., and sends them to the corresponding households.

The report not only provides feedback on a given household's energy usage, it also includes a graph that compares that household's usage to the surrounding community, and it highlights the most energy efficient families in the area.

But it doesn't stop there. It also gives an assessment of each customer's energy consumption. A household that uses 80 percent of what its neighbors use receives two smiley faces, i.e., a "great conservation" rating. One smiley face means a family used less energy than most of their neighbors and no smileys means that they used more than most of their neighbors. According to an article in Slate, once the customers received their acknowledgement their energy efficiency ratings started to slip.

Opower's Vice President of Product and Strategy Ogi Kavazovic told Slate that once they have beaten their neighbors "people will just regress back to the mean. We have to tell customers we approve of them." Opower once gave out frowny faces to wasteful customers but people found the approach too heavy-handed. Now the punishment is no smiley face and that seems to be working.

According to W. David Stahman, professor of learning and behavior at UCLA, "trying to change behavior is difficult. Trying to maintain already-learned behavior is pretty easy. Once people train themselves to behave in a certain manner their behavior has become habitual." What this means is that even if Opower's customers lose interest in the competition aspect, they will still retain the energy saving habits that they formed.

These strategies have been successful for Opower. The company has helped save customers over $220,135,000 on energy bills.

On a related note, Opower co-founder Alex Laskey spoke at a TED conference earlier this year. His talk focuses on how social pressure influences everything in our lives. It can even be harnessed as a tool to reduce energy consumption.

An interesting point that he makes is that it would take an entire wheelbarrow filled with coal to light just one light bulb for a year. Furthermore, Laskey reports that "for every unit of energy we use, we waste nine." He ends the presentation by saying that we should all be asking ourselves how to save energy. Check out the video below for more.

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