DOE's app winner: $ not only motivator

Developer says community impact is important

Phil Carson | Jun 05, 2012


The classic knock against home energy management is that saving $6 per month is meaningless and not likely to motivate anyone to invest their time or purchase a technology that might aid them. 

(Six dollars is an arbitrary number representing the average monthly savings for a household using energy data feedback to conserve.) 

Others say that if households save $6 per month and that also reflects a lower environmental impact, and many people do it, then the sum is a societal gain—and that's reason enough to do it. 

To judge from recent conversations, the divide between the two views is generational. 

The younger generation is said to be self-absorbed, lost in their gadgets, distracted by incessant stimuli. This just in: twenty-somethings at least can envision and may be willing to take small personal actions that add up to societal benefits. It's old codgers who see $6 per month as a barrier to participation. 

Yes, it's more complicated than that and research reflects multiple drivers and demographics around home energy management. But let's look at the thinking by Gen Y, which is a sequel to my column last week, "The Apps are Coming! The Apps are Coming!" That column looked at the U.S. Department of Energy's contest for software applications that could translate home energy data via the Green Button into a behavior-changing tool. 

App developers typically are younger folks. They don't need deep knowledge around utility systems or home energy management to "get it." 

So I spoke to one of the winning app developers to gauge his thinking. Meanwhile, one codger wrote in, pooh-poohing the notion that an app might motivate him to do something beyond what economics dictated. He said that he used to car pool because it saved wear and tear on his car. 

Gotcha! Today, kids might car pool because it's fun, reduces traffic and cuts carbon emissions. Perhaps those past "a certain age" might really be the "Me Generation" and Gen Y might be the "We Generation." 

Enter: Tim Edgar. Edgar is one half of Leafully (Nathan Jhaveri is the other half), which won first place in the DOE contest, as judged by a panel. (The results from popular voting should be announced today.) 

Edgar is a 26-year-old program manager for Microsoft who attended the University of California at Berkeley. His meager experience with utility operations or consumer behavioral change derived from his participation in a "Green Apartment" exercise in school that demonstrated behavioral tactics for sustainable energy practices. 

His girlfriend alerted him to the DOE contest. As he delved, he was struck by the energy density of American lifestyles, while acknowledging the incremental savings to be gained from, say, cutting back air conditioning on a hot summer day.  

"Intuitively, I knew that there had to be a larger reason for energy-saving behavior," Edgar told me last week.

Minimizing environmental impacts is a mainstream, communal value, he offered, perhaps unaware of the challenge of motivating slugs of a "certain age" to join him and his generation. 

The challenge was to create an app that would be meaningful in that bigger sense. So he calculated the impacts of various energy consumption behaviors and provided a tool whereby the user could cut back on those impacts and see those actions in terms of trees planted. The scientific soundness of that specific logic aside, Edgar and Jhaveri succeeded in developing an idea and a visual icon that consumers could understand. 

They were not talking kilowatt hours. They were talking about incremental personal actions that add up to societal gains. 

"The best way for consumers to effect change is to use their purchasing power wisely," Edgar said. "Consumers can move the market with their dollars." 

The purpose of Green Button and these apps is to give utilities tools to affect consumer behavior. Perhaps unwittingly, Edgar's free market insight also gives third parties—many of whom, indeed, are already on this track—the basis to offer what utilities cannot or will not offer them: energy management options with a societal component.

Edgar would like to make his app universally applicable and provide further options, such as guidance in selecting energy efficient appliances.  

Earth-shattering? Nah. Eye opening? Potentially. Here's a demographic that doesn't base its decisions on incremental value propositions solely on what's in it for them. And here's a tool to reach them. This sort of innovation, when crowd-sourced, costs very little. But it engages one demographic and may produce valued behavior, particularly when many people do it. Like any mass adoption of a new behavior, it will begin with a few and grow virally. (For those of a "certain age," that means "by word of mouth.")

Utilities are grasping for ideas on how to connect with their customers and encourage behavior that meshes with utility constraints. How can the Tim Edgars of the world and their ideas not be a good thing? 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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Read carefully....

The essay notes, in passing, that Tim Edgar's assumptions -- that trees planted are an ameliorative act for energy consumed -- is open to debate. That's  noted to get at the more important fact that Mr. Edgar is interested in the challenges and ready to provide solutions. 

That aside, obviously, signals that we're not passing judgment on Mr. Edgar's proposition, just applauding his willingness to engage and offer solutions. The process of science, as you may know, runs: hypothesis, experiment, data, conclusion. That means ideas like Mr. Edgar's are welcome and bear scrutiny and testing. I don't think anyone has suggested otherwise. 

Meanwhile, applauding the engagement of bright young people with ideas and a willingness to offer them shouldn't be grounds for rolling up into a defensive crouch. 

However, if today's older generation that's running power utilities knew so much about how opeople work, the industry wouldn't be scrambling to compete for its own captive customers, would it? 

But don't take it from me, just keep an ear on industry news, conferences and discussions, as I think you'll see the older crowd acknowledge that it's got a ways to go to engage customers. I continue to applaud bright young people for their contributions. After all, if they aren't willing to join the effort, based on attrition, the lights will be going out in a few years, won't they? 

Regards, Phil Carson

Touchy Aren’t We…

That is not directed at the previous comment but at a comment from the article, “energy management options with a societal component”.  It hits a nerve that the industry, until now, has failed to notice.  No matter the cost or amount of savings offered, “Social or Communal” needs are a part of us all.  Even if you are old and grumpy, you still need someone to be grumpy at.  Otherwise you are only grumpy with yourself and we all know where that leads. 


We have seen mass culture behavioral changes implemented by communicating some very simple ideas. For example:  “Don’t throw trash out of your car window and pollute our highways”, or “Would you like paper or plastic?”  These simple consumer engagements have had a major impact on our behavior and environment. 


It’s nice to have all the energy you can possibly use or even all you chose to waste.  But, when the reality of over indulgence can be seen everywhere and its impact to our environment is easily observed by the average person.  It can be a tremendous motivational tool where feeling good about a small daily sacrifice will make everyone feel good about helping to make a scratch on the bigger problem. 



Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principle 


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From the article: "The scientific soundness of that specific logic aside...."

So why not just make stuff up?

People "of a certain age" with deep experience in science and engineering are rejecting this nonsense not out of some curmudgeonly resistance to change: we happen to know a few things about what makes things (and people) tick. We also know that the economics, micro and macro, matter.

Try to remember that we "of a certain age" gave the ever-so-clever Gen Whatevers the technical foundation upon which an app might be developed for some cause in 2012. To dismiss those "of a certain age" as unwilling or unable to embrace innovation is but another pathetic dip into the bottomless pit of progressive propaganda. It also nicely obscures the obvious fact that much of what passes for "innovation" in 2012 isn't.