Fun Tools to Spark Energy Conservation: Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment

What will it take to convince the average person to manage and reduce, their energy consumption? One of the most compelling ways could be to make energy consumption transparent to communities, using the persuasive power of the group to trigger those hard-hitting emotional responses like shame and guilt (if you consume more than your peers), or competition (if you want to do better than your peers). Startups are tapping into this notion and this morning Lucid Design Group announced that it’s launched a social network based around building energy consumption.

Lucid’s so-called Building Dashboard Network, which is based around its energy management tool Building Dashboard, is a social network that enables building owners to compare their energy consumption, as well as share that energy use over existing communities like Facebook and Twitter. It’s not directly targeted at consumers and home-owners (yet) but more at larger buildings like college dorms and offices — for example, the social network will be used for the upcoming 2010 Campus Conservation Nationals, where 40 universities compete around conservation.

Lucid has been talking about some kind of social networking tool since I profiled them close to three years ago. The six-year-old company, which was formed out of research at Oberlin College, sells a software and sensor service that monitors the real-time use of electricity, natural gas and water. They recently raised $1.5 million in funding.

Lucid CEO Michael Murray explained to me that in particular colleges have been really eager to engage with the social networking aspect of energy management in order to keep up with what other schools are doing. The Lucid social network enables college customers to see the energy consumption of any other registered school and enables them to place badges on their sites for winning competitions and for having green building credentials. Murray said while they encourage customers to be as open as possible, if customers are concerned with privacy, they can opt out of displaying their consumption.

Emotions are a compelling motivator for a topic that is inherently boring. Efficiency 2.0 has been working on software that uses group social behavior to convince users to commit to, and follow through with, actions that reduce energy consumption. A section of their software focuses on “the neighborhood” and enables a user to befriend (via Facebook-style friend requests) neighbors participating in the program and compares the energy consumption of those in the group. If you’re using a lot more energy than your neighbors, you’re given an image of a face with a frown; if you’re using less energy, you get various degrees of a happy face.

“It’s basically guilting them into energy efficiency,” Efficiency 2.0 CEO and founder Tom Scaramellino told me last year, adding that the “weight-loss industry has been doing this for years. We’re trying to be the Jenny Craig for energy.”

OPower (formerly Positive Energy) has been using the same type of happy/sad face and peer comparison data for its paper-based utility services (see pictured utility reminder). OPower has found that even if it isn’t on the web, customers will respond to data mailed to them on how much energy they are consuming compared to their peers.

All of this means that it might not be the best or slickest website or tool that ends up convincing consumers to change their behavior and manage their energy consumption. It could likely be the one that is the most emotionally manipulative. But that’s something that industries from advertising, media, banking, and any type of sales in general, have known for a long, long time.

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