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Could Games and Social Media Help People Change Their Energy Behavior?

Written by Al Bredenberg, ThomasNet
Published: November 21, 2011

Energy management offers obvious benefits to businesses and organizations, but retail electricity consumers seem harder to engage, even with smart-metering technologies and peak-load pricing incentives penetrating the market.

The problem: Saving ten or fifteen dollars on your utility bill is fine and all that, but when it comes down to it, it’s not that much fun. How likely are you to take time on your lunch break to log into a web site and monitor your home power consumption? Or to take time from the kids or from your household tasks, or from that much-savored opportunity to sit down in front of the TV with a beer? (For a humorous take on smart meters, see David Sims’s recent article, “Smart Meters: Efficient? Economical? Healthy?,” as well as my less humorous but nonetheless brilliant and insightful offerings, “Is an ‘Energy Internet’ Emerging?” and “Smart Meters: Helping Consumers Dial Back Their Power Usage.”) (Photo: Smart meter. Credit: Portland General Electric, CC BY-ND 2.0.)

And as for me, much as I enjoy writing about all that’s green and clean, I have to admit that when the time comes to haul all those bottles and cans and cardboard cartons out to the curb, the groans resound throughout the house.

But what if “green” behavior were fun all of a sudden? What if you could be part of a competition or a virtual community focused on saving energy, doing more recycling, or even generating renewable power at home to sell back to the grid? What if going green were like a game or like Facebook?

This brings me to the ideas of “green gamification” and “social energy,” employing games and social media to get consumers engaged with using energy more efficiently and other commendable activities.

“Social Energy” Coming to Facebook

Facebook, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and a company called Opower recently announced a new partnership to develop a “social energy application” described in this way:

Leveraging the Facebook platform, the app will enable consumers who choose to participate to benchmark their home’s energy usage against a national average of similar homes, compare their energy use with friends, enter energy-saving competitions, and share tips on how to become more energy efficient.

Opower is in process of establishing partnerships with utility providers so consumers will be able to “pull home energy-usage data from their utility provider into the application to see how they compare to others, and share usage and savings achievements with friends.” The first utilities to join the effort are Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the City of Palo Alto (Calif.), and Glendale Water & Power (GWP) in California. The four million customers represented by those utilities should be able to start using the application when it launches in early 2012.

The Green on Facebook app will look similar to this. Courtesy of Opower.

Brandi Colander, energy attorney at NRDC, says that “most people want to make smart energy choices in their homes, but they just don’t have the tools they need to do it. Access to personal energy use data is one such tool that can make a big difference.”

Val Jensen, vice president for marketing and environmental programs at ComEd, says his company sees the new Facebook app as “an exciting way to offer additional choice, control and value to our customers and as a platform on which we can help build the next generation of smarter customer energy efficiency programs.”

Opower provides an energy information software platform used by some 60 utilities to provide energy data and advice to customers. The company hopes to bring many more of those utilities and their customers into the Facebook initiative as time goes on.

To find out more about the program and keep informed of progress, go to the Green on Facebook page, where you can sign up to keep informed.

Will “Gamification” Engage Consumers With Their Energy Behavior?

Social-media marketing specialist Ashok Kamal, writing for GreenBiz, defines gamification as “the use of game mechanics, such as points, badges, leaderboards and challenges in non-game settings.” He cites loyalty and frequent-flyer programs as more traditional examples. But, he says, “the proliferation of social media and smartphones along with the cultural adoption of gaming has increased both the scope and sophistication of gamification.”

A report from research firm Gartner says gamification can change behavior by, among other things, supplying a narrative to activities that might otherwise be less than engaging. Gartner says that "while real-world activities are rarely compelling, gamification builds a narrative that engages players to participate and achieve the goals of the activity."

Byron Reeves, professor in the department of communication at Stanford University thinks multiplayer games could be an effective way to “improve home energy behavior.” (see “Leveraging the engagement of games to change energy behavior”) He writes,

By inputting real world home energy data into a compelling social game, such information may be transformed into a more palatable and relevant form of feedback. Further, by tying energy-friendly real-world behaviors to in-game rewards, users may be incentivized to complete them.

Reeves and associates have created a prototype of a game called “Power House” based on their research at Stanford. About the game, Reeves writes:

Power House is an online game that connects home smart meters to a game that is grounded in real world social networks. Player energy use is tracked via personal accounts with local energy providers. This information is then inputted into the game environment, where it influences the players’ in-game abilities, and has consequences for player options, rewards, and reputation. Real world energy behaviors produce particular in-game advantages and disadvantages, transforming otherwise dull and distant information into feedback that is palatable, timely and relevant.

The group is conducting trials with the game to evaluate its impact on behavior.

Meanwhile, a company called Pulse Energy has been providing a game-type platform that allows companies and organizations to involve their people in internal competitions to reduce energy usage. Pulse Energy is developer of an energy intelligence software platform for utilities and energy users.

Architectural firm Perkins+Will used Pulse Energy’s application to conduct the “Perkins+Will Energy Cup,” which pitted seven of the company’s offices against one another during a two-week competition to reduce energy usage. More than 500 employees participated, and the company reduced energy usage 16 percent across the whole competition, with some offices reaching over 40 percent savings on some days.

Pulse Energy acknowledges that from such a competition “some of the savings won’t be persistent” once the game period is over, but they assert that “engaging a building’s occupants and letting them see the impact of their collective actions does leave a legacy of long-term savings.” In the case of Perkins+Will, “several Perkins+Will offices saw a persistence of savings of up to 17 percent in the post-competition period.” The firm plans to make the Energy Cup an annual event.

The Green on Facebook app will look similar to this. Courtesy of Opower.

Pulse Energy is also helping the University of Chicago to wage its annual “Battle of the Bulbs,” an energy-savings competition between campus dormitories. For its 2011 competition, held in the spring, the school recorded a 5 percent energy saving across the competition, saving 9,557 kWh. The winning residence hall accomplished 22 percent savings during the month-long contest.

Alexi Bergeron, Pulse Energy’s lead for marketing and external communications, thinks this kind of gamification could have a significant impact on retail power consumption as part of a larger effort at energy management. He reminds me that these competitions are only part of what his company does and tells me that,

I would point to our overall offering and the commitment that utilities and government have made to developing the smart grid. Eventually, all energy consumers will need to find ways to develop their energy intelligence… By increasing the quality and quantity of energy information users engage with we can help create future-friendly energy markets. For utilities, this means greater customer satisfaction, a more engaged ratepayer base and increased opportunities for energy efficiency and demand side management.

Waste Management Rewarding Green Behavior

Solid waste giant Waste Management (WM) recently waded in to the emerging world of green gamification and social media with its strategic investment in Recycle Rewards Inc., operator of the Recyclebank rewards program, which boasts over 3 million members. Recyclebank’s platform lets members redeem points for rewards like product discounts.

WM will be merging Recyclebank with its Greenopolis Social Recycling program. The two merged programs will reward members with points for taking actions like recycling items at home or at public kiosks. Greenopolis operates nearly 2,000 kiosks in some 300 communities. Greenopolis claims that it has diverted about 20 million beverage containers from landfills. WM says it expects to “provide access to Recyclebank’s green rewards program to its nearly 20 million North American customers over the next several years.” (Photo: Greenopolis kiosk. Credit: Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Gartner report mentioned previously predicts that "By 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes."

Will that same trend affect the world of green behavior? Seems likely.

You can also read this great article over at ThomasNet.

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