Social networking and energy conservation: What went wrong?

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Toby Evans

May 7, 2011, 1:20:55 PM5/7/11

Social networking and energy conservation: What went wrong?
By George Musser | Apr 14, 2011 08:00 AM | 13

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.


Paul Tanner

May 9, 2011, 5:22:21 AM5/9/11
My research tells me that people only want to
share energy data with people they know
personally and well enough to trust. This means
that you need a *restricted* social graph and I
know of no sharing platform (other than our
prototype) that does that. I plan to finish that
some time this summer when work commitments
allow. They we'll see what reaction we get.

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Toby Evans

May 9, 2011, 5:33:49 AM5/9/11
well, you've got privacy settings in Facebook ...

Paul Tanner

May 9, 2011, 5:43:29 AM5/9/11
Not sure the *facts* are entirely relevant
here. This is about confidence and trust.
Personally I would be sceptical about fb and indeed any app running there.
So, whatever the tech solution, there's a perception barrier to overcome.
No solution is going to get widespread acceptance
if trust cannot be established.


May 9, 2011, 11:13:09 AM5/9/11
to homecamp
I have some doubts about mixing a utilitarian activity like energy
management and social networking. Paul's experience adds a real world
component that may distort the model. I feel that a 'better energy
robot' that managed things for the household would be more successful,
but I have no data to back that feeling up.

Paul Tanner

May 10, 2011, 3:37:20 AM5/10/11

I think this is an AND rather than EITHER OR.

For energy stalwarts there is a need to knowing your "energy performance" and continuously tune it.  Comparison with that of others is important in this process.

For everyone else the need is for a home that manages itself.  A HAN of smart appliances will address this need.  By smart I mean that they need little or no supervision (or extreme button-pushing skills).

BTW. I am trialling a domestic heating control system from startup Telepure.  They favour full automation but in a much smarter way than that standard thermostat arrangememt. So far so good.


Derek Foster

Aug 20, 2011, 8:05:50 AM8/20/11
Our research group at the University of Lincoln is actively involved in behaviour change for all kinds of technology-led interventions that often incorporate a social media component. We have ran successful domestic energy trials by integrating almost-live energy usage into social media and carrying out basic social psychology research into social norms and engagement.

Peer reviewed published papers on this work are here:

Wattsup? Motivating reductions in domestic energy consumption using social networks

Power ballads: deploying aversive energy feedback in social media

Currently looking at organisational energy usage in our HEFCE funded project and once again investigating social media use except in an organisational context which is very different. Social media sites are essentially 'flat' with no hierarchy whereas most large institutions have the organisational structure overlaid on any social networks within them, an interesting research problem.

Paul Tanner

Aug 22, 2011, 3:43:27 AM8/22/11
Thx Derek,

Useful stuff. See also, the June edition of Wired on the topic of feedback.
I'm still a firm believer that it works.

Regards, Paul
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Ian Mercer

Sep 7, 2011, 11:29:32 PM9/7/11
paultanner wrote: "For everyone else the need is for a home that manages itself. "

Totally agree.  Here's a blog post from 2010 along the same lines.

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