Guilt trips are effective weapon against electricity use, study finds

Is guilt tripping households into cutting their energy use as effective as raising the price of power?

A recent study of residential energy use says yes, and Facebook is launching a new “social energy” application that capitalizes on that finding.

Homes that receive regular reports measuring how their energy use stacks up to their neighbors’ cut their electricity consumption, according to the Journal of Public Economics study. Those households reduced the amount of energy they used by 2 percent, the same effect as a price hike of 11 to 20 percent, wrote Hunt Allcott, the report’s author.

“The program provides additional evidence that non-price interventions can substantially and cost effectively change consumers behavior,” the report says.

Allcott studied the “Home Energy Report” program run by Opower, an Arlington, Virginia-based firm that assists utility companies with customer engagement. The Home Energy Reports were sent to customers monthly or quarterly and used bar graphs to compare each recipient’s kilowatt hours to average energy use for similar households. Each household received an efficiency rating of “Great”, “Good” or “Below Average.”

Great users received two smiley faces on their reports. Good customers received one smiley face. Below Average customers got “frownie faces,” until customer complaints killed that feature, according to Alcott’s report.

Now Opower is partnering with Facebook and the Natural Resources Defense Council to promote an app that shows users how their energy consumption measures up to their friends’ and similar households. Utility companies in Illinois and California are the first that offer customers to import their energy usage data into the application.

The application also will allow users to share energy efficiency tips and enter energy-saving competitions, according to the announcement.

No Texas utilities have signed on to the app, but that could change before its launch in early 2012, said NRDC spokeswoman Jenny Powers.