Energy Companies Compare Customers

The Dyer family's appliances always seem to be running. Whether it's the washing machine, dishwasher or blow dryer, their four children are regularly adding to their power bill.

So when the Sacramento Municipal Utility District mailed Greg Dyer a report card complete with a failing grade and a frown face for using more energy then his neighbors, it felt like he was in school again.

"I thought, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" he said. "It seemed a little childish to me."

Sacramento's utility company, known as "SMUD" to the locals, compared the Dyers to 100 of their neighbors in similarly-sized houses. SMUD hoped to tap into the age-old quest to "keep up with the Joneses" -- but in this instance, pushing customers to use less than their neighbors, and grading them.

Dyer said it wasn't a shock that his bill last April was higher than normal.

"It goes up in spring cause my wife teaches swimming," he said.

The Dyers have made a conscious effort to save energy by installing more efficient appliances, updating their heating and air conditioning and shutting down their pool pump during the winter months.

But the idea of being rated by a utility that Dyer complains is often "less than reliable," rubbed him the wrong way. He viewed it as HIS opportunity to rate SMUD, which "fails to keep the power on with the slightest breeze."

He e-mailed SMUD four frown faces back.

SMUD customer Tamara Kaestner had a different reaction after seeing her report. She discovered that she and her husband were using more than three times the energy of their neighbors.

"I opened it up and there was these bars that said, you know, average, and your neighbors and then me -- and I was just in shock," said Kaestner. "I thought, 'There must be a big hole in my house that's just sucking the energy in.'"

An in-home energy audit by SMUD revealed that her waterfall, fish tank and TIVO all were wasting watts. The detailed analysis tabulated exactly how much money each electrical item cost her monthly.

"The fish tank [cost] $6 a month," she said. "We have a turtle with a heat lamp, that's $10 a month. My waterfall cost $50 a month. I thought, 'I love my waterfall, but is it worth that?'"

Using tips provided by the utility, Kaestner installed dimmer switches and timers, and turned everything down 50 percent. But she couldn't sacrifice everything.

"I'd rather give up my microwave before I'd give up Tivo!" she said.

SMUD discontinued the use of frown faces on their reports after some customers complained, but managers argue the pilot program is working.

"All of us have an inclination to want to follow norms. I am sure that psychology appeals to people," said Ali Crawford, project manager for SMUD. "There is some science behind taking a universal symbol and pairing it to a message. It enhances the message. Smiley faces and frowny faces are universal symbols."

Of the 35,000 Sacramento-area homes that receive the energy comparison on a monthly basis, SMUD reported that they've lowered their energy usage by about two percent. How does that translate into saved power?

"It's equivalent to taking 700 homes off the grid," said Crawford.

The utility attributed the ratings system to the change in behavior (as opposed to the economy or weather) because it used a control group of 55,000 other homes.

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