Electric utilities, especially those owned by investors, are odd ducks in our capitalistic society. Because they are state-sanctioned monopolies, their profits are regulated by public utilities commissions (PUCs). In many jurisdictions, they are required to encourage their customers to buy less of their product and have been given specific demand-reduction goals and deadlines. Many utilities are finding it difficult to meet those targets and are turning to social media to help market efficiency-improvement programs to homeowners who have been slow to respond.

The efficiency-improvement requirements, called energy-efficiency resource standards (EERSs), are like the renewable portfolio standards many states have imposed on their electric utilities, mandating affected utilities to meet a specified percentage of anticipated demand by improving their customers’ efficiency. Utility regulators increasingly see the “negawatts” created through reduced demand as a cleaner and less expensive alternative to the new megawatts generated by newly constructed plants.

At the customer level, you may have experienced these programs through utility mailings promoting home energy audits and incentivized efficiency-upgrade opportunities. More recently, many electric and natural gas utilities have started mailing out monthly reports that compare a customer’s energy use to other customers’ usage in comparable homes. Now utilities are looking to move more aggressively into social media to get the word out about their programs—yes, your electric utility wants to “friend” you.

Utilities began using Facebook and Twitter a couple years ago as public relations outlets. Twitter, especially, has been increasingly popular during storm-recovery efforts as a way to broadcast outage status and repair progress. (See “Getting the Message Across,” Utility Business, December 2011.) Now, electricity and gas suppliers are hoping to boost efficiency efforts by instilling a sense of competition with their own versions of “The Biggest Loser.”

“It’s another way to engage customers with their energy consumption,” said Adam Maxwell, a product manager of efficiency services for E Source, a market research consulting firm working with both electric and natural gas utilities. While some might consider these social-media forays to be little more than trendy PR boosters, Maxwell’s company recently completed a survey indicating game-style outreaches can have an impact.

“They do actually tend to get customers engaged in really increasing energy savings. Not only does it put energy in a relatable context but also in a place where people look at it on a regular basis,” Maxwell said.

Not surprisingly, the companies that have been working with utilities to prepare those monthly home-energy reports are leading the effort to make the most of that information online. Arlington, Va.-based Opower was among the pioneers in customized home-energy reports and recently announced a partnership with Facebook and the National Resources Defense Council. Customers of participating utilities can opt in to have Opower directly download their usage data at whatever degree of specificity their meter tracks it. Participating Facebook friends can track and compare usage against each other with the idea that efficiency--boosting improvements can become a topic of conversation and motivation.

Wayne Lin, Opower’s project management director, noted that a recent Accenture study found utility customers spent an average of six minutes per year thinking about their energy bills, while the average Facebook member spent six hours per month on the site.

“If we can use these newer channels, it can really help drive energy education and drive people to save energy,” he said.

The industry-led Green Button initiative (www.greenbuttondata.org) is helping to enable such data-driven efforts by creating a common utility-data delivery format that customers and qualified third parties can use to download usage details. A number of utilities put a Green Button logo on their websites that customers can use to directly download kilowatt-hour usage. However, this information could prove more useful to third-party developers, such as Opower and others, in developing applications that make that information more meaningful.

MyEnergy, a Boston-based competitor to Opower, enables users to connect account information from participating gas and water utilities to the site, along with electric-utility data, to provide a single dashboard for usage comparison. Users also can link information to a Facebook account and share it with other friends equally interested in cutting household energy consumption.

Additionally, MyEnergy is hoping to link interested consumers to information on local utility efficiency programs and qualified area contractors.

“There’s nothing you can do with software that comes close to what you can do with a contractor in the home,” said Ben Bixby, MyEnergy’s CEO, noting the need to make such information more accessible to residential energy users.

“There’s definitely a gap between the resources out there and the number of people taking advantage of those resources. It’s a win for the contractors if we’re able to generate more interest, and that leads to more work and more jobs,” he said.


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.