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Social networking and energy conservation: What went wrong?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It was a match made in geek heaven. Combine the hottest online activity—social networking—with the biggest environmental challenge—energy conservation—and you get something yummier than peanut butter and chocolate. It’s not just a mashup of buzzwords, either. Most of us pat ourselves on the back about our energy-saving ways. Sure, we have our vices, but doesn’t our routine greenness make up for the occasional slippage, be it bright kitchen lights or an extra degree on the thermostat? Only by talking to neighbors and friends might we discover we aren’t so virtuous after all.

That’s what social networks could be good for. People’s competitive instincts might well be the country’s biggest energy source. Also, there’s so much confusing and conflicting information out there that it would help to be able to share our experiences of what works and what doesn’t. In the past couple of years, a number of sites sprouted up to meet this demand.

And now they’re withering away one by one, reports energy blogger Chris Kaiser at Map-A-Watt. He should know. Kaiser started to build a platform to share energy statistics; I tried out a beta version last summer. Then he had to pull the plug. Wattzy turned out the lights in October, and Hug Energy blew a financial fuse in January. The latest victim is Microsoft Hohm—an awkward Microsoftian name for a promising approach that I will miss.

Only a few sites remain:

  • Google Powermeter automatically downloads your energy usage from a home energy monitor or, depending on where you live, your utility. You can share the info with friends, if they care, which frankly they probably don’t. The main use, for me, has been the ability to monitor my solar generation from work. You can hack Powermeter to show gas-meter readings, if you have the right kind of meter.
  • Read Your Meter has the distinct advantage of recording gas as well as electric usage. Despite what the name might suggest, though, it doesn’t do the reading—you do. You have to type in the data from your utility bills manually. Energy Guy is much the same thing without the social-networking component.
  • Welectricity also requires you to type in your data manually. I’ve found it quite buggy; I kept encountering broken links. Only 227 people in the whole country have signed up for it so far. (If you do, friend me; my userid is gmusser.)
  • OPower and Tendril (through its acquisition of GroundedPower) provide social-networking software to utilities for them to turn around and provide to their customers. At least, I think they do—their Web sites are incomprehensibly thick with bizspeak. I’m hoping to talk with Paul Cole at Tendril next week and will post my findings.

 

I’m not quite sure what is going wrong, but my hunch is that people would sooner divulge their salaries than their energy stats. Or maybe they just don’t know their stats. If you fall into this category, get yourself a real-time energy monitor. Point being, the technology is out there—what lacks, for reasons good or bad, is the willingness to use it. As always, let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comment fields below or on Twitter.

Power-tower photo © Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence





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  1. 1. avatar42 9:03 am 04/14/2011

    I think its deeper than you think. I’ve been trying to get people to realize telecommuting of every one possible could get us off foreign oil in months instead of years, not to mention lowering costs for employees, companies and towns. No one seems interested though. Just imagine the energy saving if we closed all those offices where people are sitting in front of computers all day and had them work from home instead. Then add time saved by not commuting, easier working around home commitments and crime reduction of more eyes in the neighborhoods during the day. It should be a no brainer right? Then why do people react like its a pipe dream when I suggest closing offices? Not even companies where offices are sitting over half empty with people working from home now seem interested in taking that last step. Maybe if cities stop paying companies to move there and instead pay them to hire people from there companies might start looking at telecommuting as a benefit for them instead of just their employees.

    Link to this
  2. 2. thevillagegeek 10:24 am 04/14/2011

    I had a chuckle when I read about the Microsoft Hohm product disappearing. Did someone actually expect help with efficiency from Microsoft, the creators of Vista and the enablers of 100% of the world’s spammer botnets?

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 10:55 am 04/14/2011

    To be fair, Microsoft is the primary target of hacker/terrorists simply because they have the largest installation base. Of course, that predominance is the result of their having killed off so many alternative platforms over the years with their predatory development objectives and monopolistic business practices.

    Microsoft would more than happy to help with power usage efficiency if they deemed the potential market lucrative enough to meet their profitability requirements.

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  4. 4. methos1999 12:45 pm 04/14/2011

    While I would generally agree with the benefits of telecommuting, I feel as though proponents forget that there are some of us out there that do hands-on activities and don’t just sit in front of the computer. Thus, telecommuting is not an option for many people…

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  5. 5. Fredmsander 3:11 pm 04/14/2011

    Sorry, from the perspective of one psychoanalyst.
    When it comes to the conflict between the pleasure principle
    and the reality principle, proposed over one hundred years ago,
    the pleasure principle is difficult to tame.

    Fredmsander
    see website http://www.createdinourownimages.com

    Link to this
  6. 6. SpoonmanWoS 3:48 pm 04/14/2011

    Nothing probably "went wrong", it just might not have been a good idea. The fact that it was tried in a few different variations shows it just might not have be feasible at all. But, at least we tried something. Oh, well, we move on to different ideas to get people stoked about saving energy….something more than $4/gallon for gas.

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  7. 7. ckmapawatt 5:53 pm 04/14/2011

    Chris from Mapawatt here! George, we haven’t pulled the plug, we’re just retooling. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. When I originally had the idea a few years ago (which was almost exactly what Hohm is) I thought it would catch on like wild fire. But what I’ve slowly realized, is that energy just isn’t that sexy to most people. In fact, I’ve found that I’ve quit paying much attention to my TED 5000 because I’ve learned just about all I can from it. Right now, only energy geeks like you and me are the ones installing energy meters and tracking their consumption. But I’m long on this market. I believe energy prices will keep going up, and therefore interest in the area will too! We’re going to be releasing a new and improved site over the next few months to try and appeal to a broader crowd. Hopefully we’ll hit on that magic formula that gets people interested in sustainability as much as they are the "Royal Wedding".

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  8. 8. Fredmsander 6:37 pm 04/14/2011

    It’s the pleasure principle. Imagine marrying a prince or princess,
    and driving an SUV.
    btw…Bill McKibben is a contributer to
    http://www.createdinourownimages.com
    before his turning to global warming.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Martin Wirth 7:02 pm 04/14/2011

    As a guest on Saturday Night Live, Betty White summed up the usefulness of social networking by describing Facebook as a "huge waste of time". I’m not being a snob about this because I use Facebook. It’s fun to trade anecdotes with friends. But it’s not a forum for heavy intellectual lifting unless all your friends are scientists or philosophers.

    My friends weren’t particularly interested in my new propane tank with its two-stage regulator nor will they delight in my 95% efficient furnace. I may post pictures of my little projects merely for my own amusement at their quips.

    Energy efficiency is not glamorous, unless you’re a scientist or engineer. A big screen television has more pizazz than a photovoltaic solar array. Even among computer aficionados, a UPS is rarely viewed to be as exciting as, say, a fancy graphical system that can run multiple monitors in high resolution for a game. Of course, the game won’t save your system from a nearby lightning strike. He who budgets for game in lieu of safe power will sooner or later meet with sorrow.

    Cost savings and ease of use is what will make energy efficiency glamorous. Final products will need to be sophisticated enough that an unsophisticated user or builder can install it and forget about it. Think toilet-level simplicity. If you can train a toddler to use it and sell it to the majority of people, that would be the route to national energy independence.

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  10. 10. BillionsNbillions 8:20 pm 04/14/2011

    The problem is lower energy consumption does not equate to social prestige. A better tact would be to offer prize money of a significant amount and enough prizes that people would compete for money, the ultimate symbol of prestige. Many people are afraid to admit they are trying to reduce energy because of the hostility against perceived "treehuggers". Environmentalists are the targets of extreme insult and criticism by quite a number of people associated with the conservative ideology and the negative pressure of such insults dissuades people from even trying to reduce energy consumption. People who have pro-environmental bumper stickers are the frequent target of on the road insults and harrassment, and having a social network for all to see in light of such orchestrated social derision is asking for abuse. I have personally seen a 65 year old women viciously harrassed for "green" bumper stickers, which scared her so much that she removed them.

    The prize money would remove this social stigma of "treehuggery" and the prize money could be paid for by social network site advertising. What could be more capitalistic and insulated from insults and social stigmatization than winning money?

    Even the most ardent FOX News fan might try to reduce energy consumption if it meant winning money. And the great thing about it is, even if some people cheat, most people would give an honest effort, and then maybe, reduced energy consumption could over time become a symbol of prestige.

    In America, working toward the common good is often seen as an evil, and rivalry and tribalism is much more part of the social fabric of the USA than cooperation is. This idea could work if the organizers developed the program in order to manipulate people’s prejudices and desire for reference group prestige.

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  11. 11. avatar42 4:36 pm 04/20/2011

    Maybe an Energyville app on Facebook? It seems all you need to is put some sort of points system on things these days to make it a game. Just look at how many people seem to think the point of Twitter and Facebook is to get the most followers even when they have nothing to say. The main problem I see here is it is hard to relate the number personally and as you say get a visible reward. I have seen sites that did well where the reward is nothing but a ranking though. But in those cases people could do things and see their rank change in hours if not minutes. Here we are looking at a return rate delay well beyond most attention spans and that is affected by the whole family not just you. Add to that the upfront costs and you have a hard sell. If you can get close to real time online data display / ranking or tie into something like Farmville where you credits for beating a number then you might have something. Or maybe Google recognition. Also as I mentioned in my previous post most working people do not really send that much time at home. If they were working from home though their usage would have more impact on their lives and they would be more inclined to watch their usage than when they are at the office.

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  12. 12. avatar42 4:45 pm 04/20/2011

    The point is it should be an option for a significant number of people that do not have it. More than that those people should be encouraged to work from home to free resources for those of you that need to move about. Almost everyone I know has a job that could be done from home. A growing percentage are being given the option to work from home but I only know a few that were flat out told the office is closing and you will be working from home from now on. Just imagine how easy it would be for you to get to work if everyone that could work from home was home and out of your way. Not to mention how much cheaper the gas would be.

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  13. 13. Welectricity 2:30 pm 04/21/2011

    Hi George, it’s Herbert from Welectricity. We’re so sorry you had problems using the app.

    During March 25-28, most of our users had problems when our app hosting provider suffered a database outage (we use a reputable web app host that itself depends on third party cloud computing services). After that was resolved, there were definitely a couple of broken links in our app that we recently discovered and fixed.

    And right now, as we speak, Amazon’s cloud has been partly down all day, affecting customers large and small – including our web app host – so, we’re down again! :(

    Thanks for your interest and I hope you’ll come back and give us another try sometime soon!

    Ps: if there were specific problems you had or continue to have, please email me at haz@welectricity.com and I’ll get them sorted out.

    Link to this
  14. 14. denysYeo 9:13 pm 05/24/2011

    I agree, levering off existing popular technology could help to move things forward. Maybe an iphone app?

    Link to this
  15. 15. drgray 2:35 am 06/1/2011

    I will have to admit that I am very skeptical when it comes to "Global Warming" and our energy transfer that produces that "bad gas" that our forests live on, carbon dioxide, and then with a little solar energy, release the gas we use to release energy, oxygen. I do see the "money, power and greed" hidden in the, what I believe to be, a big hoax and scam.
    I do believe that there is nothing but energy in either a static or active form. There is likely enough energy in your ball-point pen, if it could be released instantaneously, to blow you town off the map. Energy is always interactive and moving from one state of being to another at some given rate based upon conditions and functions that mankind will likely never find much less understand. This gets us back to the "money, power and greed" factor. If I can spin science in such a manner as to provoke national or international change that moves money into my pocket and doing something that has been done since the first records of human activity, why not? P.T. Barnum was right, "ther’s a sucker born every minute". If an individual finds neurobiopsychosocial benefit from investigating and creating whatever tweaks their mind, so be it. When it is used to rip off the most people that they can reach, then it becomes "money, power and greed" in action. Interesting stuff to ponder. As a spiritual being running a biological robot on a tiny little speck in the Universe, I can find fun in many things and speculation is one of those things.

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  16. 16. AverageJoeSixPac 2:07 am 07/16/2011

    My two cents worth here because thats all the time I have, but I must tell you this.

    Myself and people like me are not responsible for this mess. There is no shortage of energy in this world, all that is needed is to get off our duffs and go get it. There is a shortage of real leaders in this country that will stand up to these enviros, and the goofy meaningless crap that has been born from this. Someone needs to grow a pair and get us out of tankering oil from the Middle east, when we have enough right here in our own continent.

    One gal flush toilets mandated that people just flush twice, Special blends of gasoline in CA that run up the cost, special laundry detergents now that wont even clean your wash. Pouring billions of $ into high speed trains that no one is going to ride. Tieing up traffic in cities with their diamond lanes, (1000 cars going putt-putt, 10 cars going 70), makes a lot of sense dosent it.

    This is an age old ploy and I remember the inept Jimmy Carter, who absolutley single handedley, screwed up the Middle East, and then came on TV and asked everyone to sacrafice and put on a sweater in their homes in the middle of winter!

    Politicians and Greenies who have denied us the right to harvest our own energy sources are the ones responsible and I am not going to ration. conserve, or sacrifice one damn thing. I will pay for what I use, but I will not become a part of this frenzy.

    You people who are hell bent to get us into these tin cans you call cars, with your renewable agenda are to blame. Barrack Obama made a statement once that energy prices must get very expensive in order to get people into electric cars.

    Thank you Greenies, but don’t expect the rest of us to participate in udder, (yes udder) stupidity.

    And BTW, the planet is just fine!

    AJSP

    Link to this

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