My recent windfall from the water company reminded me that I could not possibly have known how much water I was using. I am not so tied in to our heating bill. I am very aware of my electricity bill. I am aware of my vehicle usage. They are all important—why the difference?
When it’s in your face, it’s harder to ignore
I have some proposed solutions that should help get our consumption in our faces.
My electric company only very recently started electronic billing, so I get my bills on paper, in the mail still. It has a graph that includes year-over year usage. This is good (the paper may be more energy efficient than electronic if I actually read it and act to reduce consumption!).
I see how frequently (actually how infrequently) I fill my car with gas. My car has an instant feedback monitor that shows my current mileage. Brilliant!
My heating bill (natural gas) is via email. We get an email saying “click here to view your bill on our website”, after which I need to log in, after which I need to find some other link to the PDF bill.
Our water bill is quarterly, and even though on paper is inscrutable (only last week did I calculate that the units presented on the bill, 1 “HCF” is 748 gallons). Not brilliant :-(
If I am not aware of how much I use, and more important how my changes affect that use, will I really have any motivation to change?
A very good article in the New York Times on the subject of changing behavior noted that a utility company found an effective way to cause behavior change:
…the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.
For me, there are several thinks that are in the way of having a clear understanding of my consumption:
- No bills have meaningful comparisons of my usage (electricity bill is best, but still not obvious)
- Reporting consumption is not always useful; much is cyclical or dependent upon the weather
- Quarterly water bills are too far away; the longer the period, the harder to compare and the more abstract the information becomes
- The bills are not consolidated in any way
I need immediate feedback. If I install a water saving shower head I would like to know the next day how much more virtuous I am. When I turn out lights or make other small changes, do I know how important the change is compared to, say, having my fridge running? Nope—it’s all pretty abstract.
But it’s still too hard, and too disconnected. Here’s what I think should happen:
- All energy/water bills should include a unified energy use metric
- Usage should be compared to prior period
- Usage should be compared to similar other houses
- Usage should be normalized for external conditions (e.g. degree days for heating)
- Energy reports should be available day by day over the Internet
- E-bills should include the information in the email, not via a link
- Some sort of competitions, awards, and other incentives should be offered
- …and many more things to make it simple to know your usage
To get really geeky, I propose a national standard that all utilities need to support. Each should report on these items via an Internet “web service” for the customer. A simple web application could aggregate the data for your house from various sources into a consolidated report. All the data is there, it just needs to be presented in a usable way!