The Social Side of Energy Use

Clark County, Wash., makes reducing energy consumption a competition.

by / September 7, 2012
Vancouver, Wash. Town Square. Courtesy of TripAdvisor.

In Clark County, Wash., in the southwest corner of the state, Clark Public Utilities (CPU) provides power to 180,000 customers. Residents have long had access to detailed information on their energy usage; printed reports included with their utility bills track this year’s consumption alongside last year’s.

But Clark County is taking it to the next level, making saving energy a little more competitive. Using a “social energy” app developed by software company Opower in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and social media giant Facebook, consumers can opt in to a service that challenges them to go public with their energy use.

“It's a tool that attempts to almost gamify the energy consumption comparison type experience,” explained Erica Erland, corporate communications manager for CPU.

Launched earlier this year with several utility providers throughout the United States, Clark Public Utilities’ September 1 implementation of the tool makes it the 17th U.S. jurisdiction now on board.

“People are now using social media to connect with friends, so we think that having a social component to energy savings will continue to excite people and drive more savings,” said Opower public affairs manager Carly Llewellyn.

Currently in soft launch mode, Clark County residents will be notified of the new service in the coming weeks via the Utility’s Facebook page and an insert in their monthly statements.

For those who suggest today’s energy consumer is already educated about the best methods for cutting down on energy waste, officials suggest more can be done — while many energy savings strategies have been incorporated into modern households, in communities employing Opower’s tools in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, consumers have saved more than $168 million on their energy bills. That’s a total of 1.4 billion kilowatt hours of energy.

“A lot of people already think that they've done everything they can — they've already switched to CFLs [compact fluorescent lights], they already run their washing machine at night, so they think that they are at baseline,” explained Erland. “But when they see their consumption compared to this group of a hundred, it makes them think that there must be other things they can do.”

Consumers in Clark County can sign up for the app by plugging in their account number via the Clark Public Utilities website. The app is then populated with specific information on their energy use, and how it compares to others in their area who share certain characteristics, like home size and number of occupants.
Geographically, specific tips are also offered to drive down consumption, and therefore, energy bills. Customers can engage with the app and earn badges by complying with tips that are provided — tips, for instance, on how to weatherize doors and windows.

App users can directly engage with friends, comparing their energy use head to head, or in teams formed to achieve collective energy savings goals.

Erland explained that since the social energy app is a new tool, the utility doesn’t have specific goals for energy savings resulting from its use. They are, however, optimistic that the app will help further engage energy consumers in reducing energy waste.

Consumers without access to the social energy app can still compare their energy use to a large database of homes across the country using Opower’s site, by entering the amount of their last utility bill. More specific comparison data is available by entering a few fields of basic data about your residence.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.