Vance Building dashboardHere’s one of my all-time favorite internet toys: a web-based dashboard that shows how much power, water, and heat my office building uses.  It updates itself continually, in real time, for each floor of the building—so I can see (or at least, I think I can) the power draw when the office fridge goes on, or when I turn out the office lights.  

I started playing with the dashboard in mid-September—and I think that it’s taught me more about myself than about the building’s energy use.

  • I’m competitive.  The electricity dashboard lets me compare consumption floor-by-floor in the building.  And for some reason, I’ve paid a lot of attention how well my floor does vs. the other floors in the building.  I especially pay attention to my arch-nemeses on the 7th floor, who continually use less electricity per employee than my floor (the 5th).  If it weren’t for them, we’d be in first place!  GRRR!  After a week of losses, I got peeved enough at our daily, ignominious second-place finish that I went upstairs to Floor 7 to figure out what was going on.  It turns out that one office has a bunch of remote workers—for the purposes of the office count they’re listed as “employees” but are rarely in the office.  Cheaters!  You know who the real winners are.  Floor 5 rules!!!  Boo-yah.

    • I’m easily distracted.  When the dashboard was a bright shiny new toy, I played with it a lot.  I visited it several times a day—and, more constructively, I paid attention to it, doing much more than I usually do to curb my office’s electricity consumption.  (I didn’t want lose to our real arch-rivals, the non-cheating 13th floor.  Floor 5 rules!!!)  But within a couple of weeks the novelty started wearing off.  My visits slacked off to maybe once every few days, then once a week.  The utility dashboard hasn’t completely fallen off my radar screen, but I’m now much less cognizant of it than I used to be—and as a result, much less attentive about my energy use.
    • I like to be in control. At first, I felt like the dashboard gave me an opportunity to exercise control over the office’s energy consumption.  I’d turn off the office lights, and think that I saw the whole floor’s performance improve on the dashboard.  But pretty quickly I realized that almost anything I did was a drop in the bucket:  I’d turn off my computer to save power when I stepped out of the office, only to come back to find that the 13th floor had opened up big a lead on us.  You see, most of the big power drains on our floor—phone systems, servers, fridges, you name it—are outside my personal control.  And apparently, when I found that I couldn’t control the squiggles and graphs on the energy dashboard, I lost some of my fervor for conservation.

    I have no idea if other people are like me:  I could be the only irrationally competitive, distraction-prone control freak out there.  But if I’m not, there may be some broader lessons here:  if you want to give people energy information that they’re actually going to act on

    • First, tap into people’s competitive instincts, by showing how their performance stacks up with their neighbors;
    • Second, make sure that that the information is presented on something that people see regularly (say, a utility bill), not something that they have to make a special effort to find; and
    • Third, make sure that the person who’s receiving the information has fairly direct control over what’s being measured.

    Hey, wait, that sounds a lot like the OPOWER electric power billing service that Seattle is currently testing. OPOWER’s billing system puts information about neighbors’ energy consumption right on utility bills themselves—and rewards energy-thrifty homes with a smiley face on the bill.  We’ll have to wait and see how things pan out in Seattle.  But if we’re like other cities, the reward of a smiley face—and the taste of sweet, sweet victory over one’s neighbors—is enough to motivate some significant shifts in household energy consumption.