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Phasebook? My(Green)Space? Can Social Networking Be Harnessed for Energy Conservation?

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

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Tendril Energize screenshot on iPhoneThe latest to announce its demise is Google Powermeter. All the efforts to combine social networking with energy conservation seem to be pulling the plug. As I wrote back in April, Web 2.0 may be many things, but green it is not. And that’s a shame, because if our friends could "unlike" our energy habits, we might have some incentive to improve them.

To see what might be done to turn things around, I talked to Paul Cole, vice-president of Tendril, in April and again yesterday. Cole is a psychologist by training and has been conducting some pilot projects to see what might get people to save energy. "We have gotten it wrong so far," he says. "It’s less a question of user motivation than that we energy technologists haven’t gotten the right products to the consumers."

Cole has scathing words about thermostats in particular. A study released in April by Lawrence Berkeley labs found that most people who had programmable thermostats didn’t use them. My first reaction was, "Geez, that’s pitiful." Are they really that hard? But I have to admit that I grew up keying hexadecimal machine code into a homebuilt computer, so I might not be the average customer. And even I occasionally find myself in a freezing house because I neglected to reprogram the thermostat for a change in season or schedule.

It’s not just a matter of making thermostat settings easier to punch in, but to make sure the devices provide useful information. If you lower the temperature and force your family members to put on thicker sweaters, will you really save any money? How much? If you go through all the trouble of weatherstripping your windows, will it pay off in your heating bill? A thermostat should be able to calculate all that for you.

Cole’s group did a pilot study of 100 homes on Cape Cod starting in June 2009. Folks got smart thermostats and energy monitors that gave them direct feedback about their power bills—not only their real-time usage, but also how their usage compared to their past usage, to the usage of other survey participants, and to the predicted consumption for a house of similar size. An online forum let people share ideas, brag about their energy savings, and ask an energy expert for advice. It also offered a list of 25 steps to take (see below).

In the first six months, homeowners reduced their electric bills by an average of 10 percent. Most started off with simple measures like swapping out light bulbs and gradually turned to more elaborate ones such as replacing appliances. "Over time, we saw more equipment-based changes," Cole says. More significantly, perhaps, he says they have kept their consumption low since then—no dieter’s regress. People log in to the site once or twice a month on average. They used to pose their questions to the expert, but, over time, increasingly turned to one another.

Other studies have likewise found that social feedback encourages energy savings. Another psychologist, Robert Cialdini, has also co-founded a company (now part of Opower) to let people know how their energy usage compared with their neighbors’, and early reports suggest the peer pressure works.

Tendril incorporated its lessons into its Energize web-based and Android/iOS apps, which started to ship this week. (Unfortunately, "ship" means "ship to electric utilities"; it will be a while yet before consumers will get to use the system, although Cole demo’ed it for me.) The system lets you set energy goals, check your progress, see where you stand and post tips. What I liked about it is that it works even if you aren’t lucky enough to have a smart thermostat or power monitor. Your monthly bill (which Tendril downloads from the utility for you) is enough to get going.

If you do have a smart thermostat, you can program it through the app, and a slider shows you much the new settings will save (or cost). The company has also been working on a whole new paradigm for thermostat programming. Instead of having to enter numbers for each setback period, you’ll be able to choose a profile that matches your lifetyle: for example, whether everyone works or goes to school during the day, or the house is always occupied. Those of us who like to punch in numbers can still fine-tune the settings.

One problem is that you’ll have to wait for your utility to offer Energize, which it may never do. Also, the system will work with some but not all third-party equipment such as energy monitors. This isn’t Tendril’s fault per se—they have an open API—but device manufacturers need to make the effort to interface with the system (an issue shared by DIY efforts such as Pachube). Finally, the system is electric-only. Cole says they have plans to incorporate gas (which accounts for the bulk of my energy bill) but haven’t set a date yet.

Before talking to Cole, I was worried that social-networking efforts had failed for lack of willingness—because people would sooner not know how much energy they squander. But it seems people are quite willing to take real steps, if only developers can make it easy and fun.

Image credit: iPhone screenshot courtesy of Tendril

  1. Use power strips on home entertainment system
  2. Use power strips on home computer system
  3. Reduce wattage in multiple bulb fixtures
  4. Power off external computer speakers
  5. Use CFLs in indoor fixtures
  6. Clean your dryer lint filter
  7. Run your dishwasher with a full load
  8. Set your dryer timer to the minimum time required
  9. Use lighting controls or timers
  10. Install ENERGY STAR indoor light fixtures
  11. Scrub your dryer lint filter periodically
  12. Turn off outdoor lights during the day
  13. Use your dishwasher’s economy mode
  14. Close your refrigerator door
  15. Unplug chargers when not in use
  16. Activate the high-spin setting on your washing machine
  17. Air dry dishes
  18. Use fluorescent tube lights
  19. Air dry clothes
  20. Turn off your desktop computer at night
  21. Check the temperature of your refrigerator or freezer
  22. Install a programmable thermostat
  23. Install CFLs in your outdoor light fixtures
  24. Unplug your TV when not in use
  25. Check your refrigerator door seals

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  1. 1. WholeBuffalo 8:28 pm 06/23/2011

    Social feedback is critical in making these improvements interesting to most people. The money saved on most changes is too small to incentivize change, but the idea of doing good in front of peers is a powerful motivator. Very few commuters actually save money driving a Prius, but the unique shape makes a powerful peer statement that obviously motivates people to buy and drive the car. We need to create the same motivations in the home, both through these kind of software/data products and through unique and appealing environmentally friendly products.

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  2. 2. tulcak 4:29 am 06/24/2011

    Social feedback for energy solutions will not work. We live in an age of selfishness. People protect their information instead of sharing. This is social capitalism and it encourages selfishness just as capitalism is selfish. Until we enter a new age where we all feel we are in this together, most people will have to be dragged kicking to change their consumption habits. There will have to be a long and severe crisis that will force us to change our habits and our outlook.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 10:43 am 06/24/2011

    Most people are not self-centered. They have common sense and are too smart to buy into ‘feel good’ fluff.

    More energy is used by endless studies, committees, bureaucracies etc. than is ever saved. They have to justify there existence..close the refrigerator door…geesh!

    Only a bureaucratic dingbat would believe that programmable thermostats were going to save energy….these pompous dickheads are ‘out of it’ when it comes to dealing with the real world.

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  4. 4. ConversationDairy 10:49 am 06/26/2011

    Humans are both social and selfish. Guilt is not just a social outcome, it is an evolutionary outcome, as is the "warm fuzzy glow feeling". So it should be clear that the feeling of doing this as part of a group would be an incentive. And not to forget the competitive element. Whether it is a programmable thermostat or some more crude development, the social feedback element is probably a key factor to the success of "green" initiatives. Of course it is also true that hardship is a good motivator.

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