Theoretically, there’s no better way to get people to care about an issue than to incite competition. In the energy space, this strategy hasn’t always worked. Both Microsoft Hohm and Google PowerMeter—social energy monitoring tools that were massively hyped upon launch—fell flat in recent years. But Opower, Facebook, and the NRDC may have finally found a way to get people to engage in some friendly energy consumption competition: a social energy app that requires minimal input and offers maximum bragging rights.
The just-launched app allows users to grab all their energy usage information with a few clicks, thanks to a partnership with 16 utilities across the country. Twenty million people, or one in six U.S. residents, now have access to their energy stats through the service. And for people who don’t, the app makes it easy to estimate home energy use.
Once energy use information is collected, the competition can begin. Opower’s app allows users to compare energy use with friends (and comment on it in-app), average households, and the top 20% of homes in the U.S. Now you’ll know that putting in those CFLs made a difference: You’ll be able to see, on Facebook, that you just saved more than your friends. Friends can also team up in groups for more streamlined competition. Utilities can set up their own energy-saving challenges (soon to be located here). Eventually, brands will be able to hold competitions too, presumably with rewards for the winners.
Alex Laskey, president of Opower, is confident that the new app can triumph over Hohm and PowerMeter: "The key difference is utility participation. The amount of work in trying to get consumers to engage without the help of utility connections is hard."
There is another difference: The Opower app has immediate access to Facebook’s 800 million-plus users. "We’re really hopeful that this is the start of more and more people seeing Facebook as a way to do this kind of work and get people engaged in these kinds of issues," says Marcy Scott Lynn of Facebook Sustainability. "These are conversations that people are just not having right now."
This is partially because energy is invisible. People know how much gasoline it will take to go a certain distance because they have to. But energy use is a little more nebulous. That may start to change, though, as smart meter technology is rolled out more widely and as utilities slowly realize that they should become a little more tech savvy. "The utility industry is the last industry to bring real information services to its customers," says Eric Fleming, director of corporate marketing at Opower. "I think this is a major step forward."