When it comes to energy efficiency, experts will tell you that better, greener technology only gets you so far. You have to get people to change their behavior, that is use less electricity, which is a lot more difficult.
One approach that has been embraced by the federal government and utilities runs on the proposition that if you can show people the connection between their energy use and their electric bills, they might be motivated to change. This is the basic principle behind smart meters and the more detailed information they offer on ratepayers’ energy use.
Building on that, earlier this year, with prodding from the federal government, California’s three main utilities launched an initiative called the Green Button, a literal green button available on their websites. A quick click of the button and ratepayers could download detailed, raw data on their electricity use in a file form that could be easily input and shared with energy efficiency applications.
To kick start the market for Green Button apps, the Department of Energy has held an Apps for Energy competition, challenging developers to come up with mobile and tablet apps that use the downloadable data to engage people and motivate them to cut their energy use. And to make it serious, the DOE offered some sizable cash prizes, from $4,000 to $30,000 for the top overall winner.
The competition has two parts, one where the entries were judged by an expert panel, and another where the public gets to weigh in and vote for their favorites.
The department received 57 apps, and last week announced five top winners in the judged competition, in two categories — overall, which appears to be apps developed by startups or working developers, and students.
The top winner overall — for the $30,000 prize – is an app called Leafully, which promotes energy efficiency by translating your energy use into the amount of trees that would be needed to offset your energy use. Using the Green Button data, the app allows folks to track their energy use and set goals — for example, cutting your kilowatts enough to save 10 trees.
The top winner in the student category – scoring a $15,000 prize – is called wotz, developed by a team of students at UC Irvine. This one is really fun, encouraging people to play, explore and challenge themselves with different interactive interpretations of their Green Button data.
Voting in the public competition is still open and runs through the end of the day May 31 – this Thursday. The top winner there gets $8,000.
So far, the leader, way ahead with 3,135 votes, is an app called iEnergy, developed by Interlink Network Systems. It provides information linking energy use and electric bills and allows you to monitor your top kilowatt-guzzling appliances.
One thing that surfaces in many of the apps is that while we usually focus on reducing our peak usage, it is baseline energy use — the underlying power buzz for appliances and electronics that run even when we’re not home — that makes up a significant part of our bills.
Other takeaways from the competition, as pointed out in a column by Phil Carson, editor of the Intelligent Utility website, are –
- Application developers are motivated by challenges, competition and money
- If incentives work for app developers, they’ll work for utility customers
- Utilities should focus on the youngest customers with these apps and value propositions, and make energy management cool; then have happy users spread the word.
That last point could be critical. As one of the developers in the iEnergy video says, the earlier in life people start changing their energy habits, the more likely those changes are to become engrained, permanent behavior.
So check out the apps and vote for your favorites. Which ones do you think would get you to change your energy use?
And as a quick footnote here — I hate to keep harping on Southern California Edison – but while writing this blog post, I went on the Edison website — cause I’m an Edison customer — to look for the Green Button. It’s not easy to find. You have to have an online account and then you have to go to the Usage screen — the last of the three screens available on customers’ individual account pages.
This would not be so bad if Edison had posted some basic information, with a link easily visible on the website’s home page, telling customers how to get to the Green Button for their accounts. Not there, even if you put “Green Button” into the website’s search engine.
Maybe as part of the national energy efficiency drive, we need utilities, as well as ratepayers, to change their behavior.
Anybody got an app for that?