Green

For energy savings, work with consumers or around them?

There’s a growing movement to figure out how to squeeze more energy savings out of homes. The big question: Do you do it by working with consumers, or in spite of them?

Players on different sides of this issue talked about that today at VentureBeat’s GreenBeat 2010 conference — OPower executive Rod Morris, EcoFactor executive Scott Hublou and Bill Weihl, green energy czar of Google.

OPower is the reigning industry darling in engaging consumers — which is shaping up to be quite a dilemma as more and more companies try to get their products in homes. The company worked with behavioral scientists to figure out what would push consumers to care about cutting their energy use. The answer they came up with was, more or less, pit them against each other — in other words, appeal to people’s competitiveness.

“There are other behavioral science tricks (besides) using competitiveness” that the company is testing, Morris said. He mentioned getting utilities to implement opt-out programs as one example.

The company works with utilities to produce bills that show customers how their energy usage compares to that of their neighbors’, and to regional averages. You get a smiley face if you’re performing above average, and OPower has used that approach to great success, meting out energy savings across a large market of homes. The company’s growing fast, too.

“We have twice as many customers as we did three quarters ago,” Morris said, and mentioned OPower currently needs to hire Java engineers to help support its growth. The company markets consumer engagement platform to utilities that it claims engages 85 percent of users who try it.

On the other side of the aisle, EcoFactor is pushing a set-it-and-forget-it type approach. I spoke with Hublou after the panel, and he believes that, by and large, customers want to be left alone. In fact, he used a funny term for it — MTKD, or “mean time to kitchen drawer.” People lead busy lives, and no matter how great a user interface is, they will eventually become too busy and the home dashboard product will wind up, well, gathering dust in the kitchen drawer.

EcoFactor uses a smart thermostat system that metes out “30 to 40″ types of energy savings — each worth maybe a nickel in savings — that add up over time to big overall reductions in a home energy bill with little to no effort on the part of the customer, Hublou said.

“We’re actually finding our greatest savings is in the detection of waste,” Hublou said.

As for Google? They have PowerMeter, which crunches home energy data. But Weihl says he’s most interested in an open system that enables third-party access. He pointed out that there’s still not total access to real-time data, as OPower’s bill comes monthly in the mail.

“The real-time information does give some real benefits,” Weihl said. “We’re trying to build (a system) …so other people can get in there and provide services to users.”

[Image via Flickr/toffeehoff]