A PG&E SmartMeter on a Bay Area home. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Smart meters have arrived for many Californians. More than 11 million have been installed by electric utilities in the state, with PG&E leading the way. The new meters digitally track a household’s energy use. So, for the first time, we can see our daily and even hourly data online (with a one-day lag before it’s posted).

Studies have shown that consumers reduce their energy use when they have access to this information. But as PG&E and other utilities have discovered, raw energy data doesn’t mean much to most of us (including me in this week’s QUEST story).

A number of clean tech start-ups and major corporations are jumping into this space, trying to bridge the gap between hardware (meter) and well, “soft”-ware (consumers).

Getting busy people to change their behavior is no simple task. So I spoke to two companies that have worked with PG&E and other utilities on this problem. Both Opower and Silver Springs Networks have designed the web portals that consumers see when they log into their utility accounts. They’re designed not just to make us understand, but to inspire us to use less energy in our daily lives. I asked Dan Yates of Opower and Eric Dresselhuys of Silver Spring Networks what lessons they’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Keep Up with the Joneses

You might think that saving the planet would be enough of a reason to guilt us into energy conservation. But it turns out that our competitive streak is a bigger motivator.

The companies’ websites show customers how their energy use compares to similar houses in their neighborhood. Don’t worry – they’re not publishing exactly how much electricity the Smiths use down the street. But the companies say knowing how you compare to others is a powerful motivation.

“It’s not shame,” says Yates of Opower. “It is really just recognizing an addressable opportunity to reduce usage. If I have a $250 utility bill, I don’t really know how much I can save. But as soon as I know that a similar home in my neighborhood is paying $150, suddenly I feel like I have an addressable gap of $100 that I want to pay attention.”

It’s called “normative comparison” in the behavioral science world. And Dresselhuys agrees. “People don’t like to lose. People start to wonder why they use so much more than their neighbor does and they start to dig into it.”

Opower is rolling out new social features later this year that allow customers to compare themselves to friends on Facebook. “It puts the information in a context that’s relevant to people. We’ve seen the power of the neighbor comparison and we’re taking it to the next level with the friend comparison,” says Yates.

Lesson 2: Provide Concrete Advice

Once you get people’s attention, they need specific recommendations to take action on – and those recommendations need to be doable, say Yates. “People don’t want data, they want insights.”

“I always joke that my mom is my litmus test. And I know that she would never spend a minute looking at raw energy data. But what she would love to find out is that her freezer is very energy intensive and it would be worth it to buy a new one,” he says.

Opower is working with PG&E to roll out a new web portal to customers by the end of the year. Using smart meter data, they can analyze a household’s energy use and break it into four categories: heating, cooling, base load (like refrigerator and DVR) and everything else (like lighting and TV watching).

Heating and cooling makes up half of a home’s energy use on average. Yates says reducing your heating and cooling load is one of the easiest ways to save energy and reduce your bill.

Lesson 3: Get Information Out There

“The average customer isn’t getting up in the morning and checking their energy use data,” says Yates. Emails, text messages and plain old snail mail are crucial for getting customers to pay attention.

Eric Dresselhuys says mobile devices, including iPhone apps, are making it much easier. “You can get a text if your electricity usage is getting high. Or the utility can send a message on peak days when they need customers to conserve energy,” he says.

Letting customers know what their bill will be is also a good way to get their attention. “Today, getting your utility bill is like shopping for groceries all month long and never seeing a bill until the end of the month,” he says.

Lesson 4: Set a Goal

Remember those gold stars in elementary school? It turns out we still like to be rewarded when we achieve something.

“What we see is that getting people to go after a goal, even 5%, has a big impact,” says Yates. When they track a customer’s progress towards a goal, Yates says it helps them save energy, no matter the size of the goal. “It’s applicable even if you’re at the very bottom of the pile and use a ton of energy,” he says.

Lesson 5: Tell People When They Do Well but Don’t Overdo it

Say you’re super energy efficient, turning off lights and power strips in your house with unrelenting dedication. If your utility tells you that you’re head and shoulders above everyone else, chances are you’ll stop trying so hard. “This was a concerning outcome of earlier studies we did,” says Yates.

“It’s been seen in other scenarios. There was an anti-drinking campaign called ‘two beers is enough’ at college campuses. There were non-drinkers who started thinking ‘if the campus is telling me two is enough, maybe I should drink more beer,” he says.

“We’ve designed our reports so everyone has a goal in front of them,” says Yates. It’s always good to reward people for doing a good job, but Yates says they stay away from telling people if they’re achieving way above expectations.

Lesson 6: The Smart Grid is Probably Smarter without Consumers

Home automation, as its known, is almost a holy grail for utilities. If technology can take care of energy conservation, then customers don’t have do remember to do it.

The idea is that on peak days, when the utility needs to conserve energy, it can send a message to a customer’s smart meter. The meter is connected to the thermostat over a Home Area Network, so the thermostat adjusts itself by a few degrees to conserve electricity. Customers can opt-out anytime.

Both the carrot and stick in this case comes in the form of a varied pricing plan. During hot afternoons or so-called “peak events,” electricity would be more expensive. So the customer has the potential to save money by shifting their energy use later in the evening when power is cheaper.

Dresselhuys says they saw the potential of this in a pilot with Oklahoma Gas & Electric customers. “The more automation in the home, the higher the level of savings. Using that home automation about doubles the amount of money they can save,” he says.

What Makes Us Conserve Energy? 6 Lessons from the Smart Grid 30 April,2013Lauren Sommer

  • Inside Nine

    By now most Californians have been arbitrarily forced to submit to the burden of wireless smart meters. Its very late but California Public Utility Commission members are now admitting that they know the meters are “making people sick” and that’s why they are authorizing an “opt out program”.

    Of course, had the harm to public health been realized at the start the paltry benefits of smart meters would never have justified their expense.

    Their so-called safety never has been established. Where are the pilot studies usually required before exposing large populations? Greed has led to this technological embarrassment.

    At least in California leaders are admitting mistakes but lets see the level of sincerity to make things right! So far all I have noted is people fleeing their homes to get as far away as they can from wireless smart meters after their repeated complaints have had no effect on the status quo.

  • RobertWilliams

    MUST-SEE 4-minute youtube video on Smart meters:

  • RobertWilliams


    2. The WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION May 31 2011 placed Non-ionizing radiation coming from Wireless smart meters (& some other wireless devices) on the Class 2-B Carcinogen List.

    3. The NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH Feb 2011 found biological changes in the brain after only minutes of exposure to non-ionizing radiation.

    4. LABORATORY SCIENTISTS have observed
 (1) Human Cell Damage
 (2) DNA Chain Breaks 
(3) Breaches in the Blood-Brain Barrier
 from levels of non-ionizing radiation lower than emitted by WIRELESS Smart meters.

    5. INSURANCE COMPANY Scientists also observed Cell Damage and DNA Chain Breaks and now the Insurance Companies will NOT Insure Liability damage from Wireless Smart meters and other wireless devices.
 TV Video (3 minutes)

    Cell Phone use and other devices are Voluntary and can be shut off at the user’s discretion, but Smart meters mounted on homes are emitting radiation 24/7 and can not be shut off.

  • RobertWilliams

 Video Interview: Nuclear Scientist, Daniel Hirsch, (5 minutes)

Video Interview: Dr. Carpenter, New York Public Health Department, Dean of Public Health, (2 minutes)

 2-page Press Release

    NOTE: many of the tests on non-ionizing radiation (the type of radiation emitted by smart meters) have been done using instruments other than smart meters because smart meters have only been in people’s homes for a very short time.

    But as a Wireless smart meter emits 100 times more radiation than a cell phone, it is not difficult to project. If a machine gun (smart meter) fires 100 bullets in the same time that a pistol (cell phone) fires one bullet, it is not difficult to project the harm that the machine gun can inflict, even if the tests were done with the pistol.

  • RobertWilliams

    9. RADIATION MEASURED FROM SMART METER MOUNTED ON A HOME (once active in the utility system) SHOWS RADIATION TRANSMISSION PULSES APPROXIMATELY ONCE EVERY FOUR SECONDS 24 HOURS PER DAY traveling through the bodies and brains of the inhabitants of that home. 
Youtube Video (6 minutes, 1st minute is sufficient)

  • Mr. Widemouth

    Smart Meters – real research and real eye opening video footage showing how smart meters destroy nearby plants and shrubs http://www.squidoo.com/beware-of-smart-meters

  • This is the sort of information I’ve long been in search of. Thanks for posting this information.

  • Jeff H

    Why do Smart Meter emit Radiation if they are simply monitoring usage?


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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