Expert Voices

Keeping Up with the Greens: Neighbors Can Spur Conservation (Op-Ed)

Sukkertoppen Isflade
Sukkertoppen Isflade, a small ice cap in the southwest Greenland mountains. (Image credit: Michael Studinger/NASA)

Marlene Cimons writes for Climate Nexus, a nonprofit that aims to tell the climate story in innovative ways that raise awareness of, dispel misinformation about and showcase solutions to climate change and energy issues in the United States. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Mindful of the growing dangers of climate change, I always strive to be an environmentally conscientious consumer. I'm on my second Prius. I don't eat red meat. My indoor light comes only from compact florescent light bulbs. Local clean wind powers my primary residence in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington.

So, understandably, I was more than a little upset to learn that I was a flop at energy savings compared to my neighbors. This revelation came through a series of home energy reports from the utility company that services my weekend house 170 miles away in western Maryland. In fact, at certain times during the year, I had consumed up to 37 percent more electricity than 100 nearby homes similar in size to mine.

Not surprisingly, I felt considerable guilt upon discovering I was not as environmentally friendly as I had thought. Beyond that, however, there was something troubling about the neighbors eclipsing me.

And that, of course, is the point. It's why dozens of utility companies in the United States and abroad have started telling consumers how they are doing in energy consumption compared to their neighbors. Grounded in social-science research, the rationale behind the approach is that if you find out your neighbors are doing the right thing, you will want to do the right thing, too.

Also, when your energy savings exceed those of your neighbors, the report will tell you — and give you a congratulatory smiley face to make you feel good.

Why "social norms" work

The dynamic behind this strategy is not really about competition, even though it may seem so at first. Rather, it originates from the sociological concept of "social norms," which holds that members of a group will respond to appropriate — or inappropriate — values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors held by others within their groups. [Trillions and Quadrillions: Numbers Tell U.S. Energy Story ]

"This isn't about pushing or prodding people into a choice, but informing them about a choice," said Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and co-author of the book "The small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big InfluenceThe small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence ound you have chosen to do about their energy consumption informs you about what is appropriate, and influences you to do the same."

Cialdini and P. Wesley Schultz, professor of psychology at California State University at San Marcos, conducted a study"in which we showed that simply informing people with a door hanger that their neighbors were undertaking energy savings reduced their own energy savings dramatically in the next month," Cialdini said. "They had been using about 14.5 kilowatt hours per day, which dropped to about 12 kilowatt hours per day. It made a huge difference."

The effort shows that people will make environmentally conscious decisions with a little push, Cialdini said. "People want to do right by simply following what those around them are doing," he said. "It doesn't require a lot of cognition. You don't have to think about it. It's fundamental to human behavior, and you see it in nature. Birds flock together in beautifully coordinated systems. Cattle herd together. Even social insects swarm in a patterned way."

Using human nature to spur change

The company OPower began in response to this research and other studies by Cialdini demonstrating how social norms can influence environmental issues. The company, launched in 2007, works with utility companies to persuade consumers through these reports that saving energy is good for society — and that doing so is part of a belief system practiced by their closest neighbors. Cialdini served as the company's chief science officer during its first three years.

The utility companies provide OPower with information on their customers' energy consumption, and the company uses a variety of additional data sources and computer algorithms to assess household characteristics, derive estimates and draft periodic reports for utilities to send to their customers.

These reports feature striking, colorful bar graphs illustrating individual customer consumption, along with overall usage among all 100 of the customer's closest neighbors. It also shows usage among a select subset, demonstrating how well the neighborhood's most efficient members are performing. The mailings provide energy-saving tips, too, so if you don't fare as well as others in your neighborhood, you can do better next time.

More than 95 utilities in nine countries have signed on to the program, which currently processes more than a third of U.S. household energy data, according to Margot Littlehale, a spokeswoman for the company. "We are growing exponentially as more clients sign up," she said.

The strategy appears to be quite effective. [Efficiency is the Energy of the Future, and the Present (Op-Ed )]

So far, the program has saved a total of 5 terawatthours of power, which is "enough energy to take New Hampshire off the grid for a year," Littlehale said. The effort also has trimmed more than $581 million from customers' utility bills, and prevented more than 8 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, according to the company.

"There are numerous studies that have documented the effectiveness of OPower's approach," said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, a senior research associate with Colorado State University, and founder and director of Human Dimensions Research Associates, a small Colorado-based research and consulting firm. "They have found that residential energy use generally decreases by 1.4 percent to 3.3 percent across households that receive the reports."

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The motivation to keep saving

What's in it for the utility companies? You might think they would want consumers to use more energy in order to increase profits. But there are more powerful incentives at work for these companies.

"Most utilities are either required to reduce energy consumption by a certain amount every year, and are compensated by the public utility commission for doing so, or they are interested because they are looking for ways to avoid building new power plants, which can be very expensive," Ehrhardt-Martinez said. "Also, they are trying to reduce peak demand when there are spikes in energy use, often between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m."

To be sure, these reports have changed my behavior.

For the nine years that I have owned my second home, I've kept it functioning during the winter months, even though I am rarely there. Winters in the mountains of western Maryland can be harsh, so to keep the pipes from freezing, I've kept the electric heat on and the thermostat at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). No doubt, this explains my high electric bills, and my poor performance on these reports.

But this year, for the first time, I drained the pipes, and turned off both water and heat.

I am eager to see the results on my next electric bill — and on my next energy savings report. Hopefully, this time I'll best all the folks who live down the road — and maybe even inspire them to do a little bit better.

Cimons' most recent Op-Ed was "Expect More Giant Snowstorms as Climate Warms." Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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