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Solar at Home

Solar at Home

The trials, tribulations and rewards of going solar

Social networking and energy conservation: What went wrong?

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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

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

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