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Thursday, February 27, 2014

PSNH experiments to see if comparing energy bills will lead people to use less electricity

Some 25,000 PSNH customers are getting more information in their monthly electric bill – sometimes about themselves, sometimes about their neighborhood – as part of an experiment to see whether the practice known informally as “nudging” can reduce people’s electricity use.

Starting this month, PSNH will send some residential customers a special report about their most recent month’s power usage. About half of them, chosen randomly, will see their usage compared to their usage the previous month, while half will see their usage compared to the usage of a select group of similar neighbors. ...

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Some 25,000 PSNH customers are getting more information in their monthly electric bill – sometimes about themselves, sometimes about their neighborhood – as part of an experiment to see whether the practice known informally as “nudging” can reduce people’s electricity use.

Starting this month, PSNH will send some residential customers a special report about their most recent month’s power usage. About half of them, chosen randomly, will see their usage compared to their usage the previous month, while half will see their usage compared to the usage of a select group of similar neighbors.

“We want to see which is the most effective, what people react to,” said Michael Skelton, spokesman for PSNH.

Of particular interest will be the effect of comparisons with similar residents nearby, known by researchers as “peer comparison feedback.” The comparisons are not to individual homes but to aggregated data about residents in the area with similar energy usage.

It has been shown to have a noticeable effect on people’s habits. A 2009 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that people in California and Washington state cut electricity or natural gas use by 1 to 2 percent when shown that other homes nearby were more efficient.

PSNH wants to see if it will work here.

“That’s part of what we want to measure and experiment: letting customers know how nearby homes are doing. It may get them interested: ‘What do they have that I don’t have?’ ‘What practices are they doing that I’m not?’ ” Skelton said.

The Home Energy Report project will run for 12 months and be evaluated, he said.

A few utilities around the country have run similar programs, part of a broader approach to public policy known informally as “nudging,” in which giving people more information, or even presenting existing information or existing choices in different form, can lead them to change some behaviors.

The concept is known to the public largely through a book called “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.” It was so influential that the British government established a Behavioral Insights Team that was widely called the “Nudge Unit,” to alter government practices in that country to make them more effective.

The PSNH reports are put together by a company called Opower, whose president, Alex Laskey, gave a talk titled “How Behavioral Science Can Lower Your Energy Bill” at the 2013 TED talks.

As part of the Home Energy Report program, customers will have access to an interactive Web portal in which they can review efficiency tips, conduct an automated 30-second home energy audit, and develop a savings plan.

Some customers also will be eligible to earn rewards, like gift cards, based on energy savings they achieve.

David Brooks can be reached
at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).