Is Peer Pressure Good for the Environment?

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When Slate's Daniel Gross publicly posted his electricity and heating oil usage rates, he didn't anticipate how many readers would write in to lambaste him as an energy "porker." But this led Gross to a revelation: When energy usage rates are public for all to see, the threat of public shaming becomes a real disincentive to over-consumption. Gross further concludes that, if everyone in his neighborhood also made their energy usage rates public, they would naturally begin to compete to see who could use less. Why? Peer pressure! "Engineers like to say that what gets measured gets controlled," he writes.

Xcel Energy has been doing experiments about this in its service area. It sends report cards that "lets the customers know in a colorful bar chart how they rate when their combined electrical and natural gas use for the past month is compared with 100 neighbors in similar-size homes. It also lets them know how they did compared with their most efficient neighbors." Those that perform well against these benchmarks receive two smiley faces. It sounds like second grade, but this information can be a powerful motivator. Utilities that have tried such efforts report that these efforts alone result in reductions of 2 percent to 3 percent, which is significant.

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