Tracking, and reducing, energy consumption at home

A power-usage meter displays a reading at a commercial facility July 18, 2006 in Mount Prospect, Illinois. As hot weather has blanketed much of the nation, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) power company reported July 17, customer demand reached a record 23,000 megawatts.

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Tess Vigeland: It is October, and while most kids would say that means only one thing -- Halloween! -- in fact there's something else almost as terrific: Energy Awareness Month!

The first President Bush started the whole thing 19 years ago to help reduce energy consumption. More recently, power companies started testing new gadgets aimed at helping their customers do just that. They're called "smart meters."

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner explores whether they're actually changing our energy usage.


Sarah Gardner: Bob Simon confesses that before his utility recruited him for a pilot project, he was clueless about his energy use.

Bob Simon: I just paid my bill. Plain and simple. I figured it was normal for a family of four to have a bill of that size.

$344 a month, on average, for gas and electric. In recent months, though, this Oshkosh, Wis., car salesman has cut his utility bill in half. He says that's because he started using free electricity-tracking software from Google. It's called PowerMeter. The local utility, Wisconsin Public Service, has about 100 customers testing it out.

Simon: We're looking at a graph of two days and the amount of power per hour that's used on a bar graph.

Simon can check that bar graph on his iGoogle page. There's a 24-hour delay in the data, and it doesn't tell Simon exactly why his power use goes up or down, but he says now he's more aware of how he wastes energy. He did a little homework as a result and broke some longtime habits.

Simon: I learned to turn lights off and replace lightbulbs with high efficiency lightbulbs and you don't need the hot tub on constant filter at 130 degrees when you use it twice a month.

Simon also learned to ratchet down the heat on weekdays, when nobody was home except the family dog. Same for the air conditioner in the summer. No comfort sacrificed, Simon says. And he enjoys his monster flat screen TV all the more, knowing he's saving energy elsewhere.

Simon: Wisconsin has very long winters. You're not going to go running in the winter because it's 30 below. You're going to sit in here under a blanket and watch television.

Lots of companies are now selling either home energy software or small monitors with digital screens that tell consumers how much power they're using and the costs. Corporate giants like Microsoft and GE have both jumped into this business. And venture capitalists are enthusiastically funding a bumper crop of start-ups like Tendril and EcoDog.

Question is: do most consumers want what they're selling? Greg Guthridge is an expert on this new industry at Accenture.

Greg Guthridge: We're finding that in-home devices appeal to a small segment of active consumers who have sort of a propensity for green or for economic savings and also have a lot of discretionary time.

Some studies project these products could cut home electricity use by up to 15 percent. But none of them have been around long enough to pass the "kitchen drawer test." As in, how long before the novelty wears off and they end up in the junk pile.

This past spring, Commonwealth Edison in Chicago mailed 2,500 customers free in-home energy monitors made by Tendril. Less than a third of them have turned them on. And then there's the P.R. problem.

Guthridge: We're finding a significant number of consumers and a growing part of the population that views these devices as some kind of a Big Brother or some kind of a control mechanism.

But even if utilities do manage to their customers' trust, it's not clear that giving them more data will lead them to slash their power use, even if that data is up-to-the-minute and includes prices.

George Loewenstein: The reason is is that energy is extremely inexpensive.

George Loewenstein is a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Loewenstein: In Pittsburgh, if you use a 5,000-BTU air conditioner for an hour, it'll cost you 4 cents.

Loewenstein says to make a serious impact long-term on nationwide energy use, average electricity prices have to go way up.

Loewenstein: As a society we're missing the forest for the trees. We're focusing on these kind of palliatives like giving people information and sometimes I worry these palliatives are coming at the expense of more fundamental change, like adjusting electricity prices to reflect the true cost of energy to society.

Like air pollution and global warming. But with a U.S. carbon tax nowhere near in sight, you can expect more home energy gizmos and software, not less. And perhaps more people like Bob Simon who sees these "smart energy" tools as smart for his bottom line.

Simon: Who's not for saving money? You don't have to save the world. You're saving money. You're helping yourself.

In Oshkosh, Wis., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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