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Utilities Can't Convince Us to Save Energy—Can Facebook?

A new Facebook app will allow users to monitor, share, and compare information about their energy use.

Suburban life used to mean showing off your lawn: You invested your money and your sweat, and your green grass testified to your effort and accomplishment. Today a well-watered, intensively fertilized lawn might look green, but not the right kind of green: that of low-energy appliances and LED lightbulbs and well-insulated walls. But the social pressure that kept America’s lawns so green for so long hasn’t migrated over to energy efficiency.

A new Facebook app could provide that necessary pressure, though. Next year, in a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Opower, an energy management company, Facebook will allow users to monitor and share information about their energy use. The app’s users will be able to compare their energy efficiency with the average energy use of people like them. They’ll also be able to see the energy use of any friends who participate. And on top of any unspoken pressure to be the most efficient (or at least to avoid being the least efficient), the application will allow users to form groups in which members compete against each other to decrease their energy use.

Among energy projects, Facebook’s would fall into the “smart grid” box. Competitors, both independent companies and technology giants like Google and Microsoft, have tried and mostly failed to entice electricity consumers to buy into smart grid initiatives. The intention is for consumers to receive more detailed information about their energy use and to take rational steps to decrease it.

But consumers don’t act rationally about energy use and are mostly unmoved by reams of detailed data about it. Companies like Opower have had the most success goading people into decreasing energy by relying on the same instinct that leads suburbanites to check out their neighbors’ perfectly mowed lawns, comparing one household to others like it and either reassuring a customer that she’s doing better than her peers or breaking the bad news that he’s doing worse.

Social pressure is more powerful, though, when it’s attached to communities, not to abstract averages that describes greater slices of society. And distributing information throughout communities is exactly what Facebook excels at. Facebook, like a front yard, is a public-facing space through which an individual can demonstrate to the community that he’s upholding the lifestyle that they’ve all bought into.

Not everyone chooses to live in the suburbs, and not everyone on Facebook will choose to share their monthly kilowatt-hour stats or to value energy efficiency. Right now, though, utilities and energy management companies can offer more information than most people are willing to absorb about their energy habits. Most people don’t care what their utility company thinks and won’t change their behavior to save a couple bucks each month. But we do care what our friends think, and that could make this system work.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Martin Cathrae

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