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UpStarts: How Promises Of Ice Cream Can Reduce Energy Consumption

UpStart [uhp-stahrt] n. 1. A company or organization with innovative approaches to energy use, carbon pollution, resource consumption, and/or social equity, 2. A company or organization overcoming market barriers to build the new clean energy economy.

by Adam James

The cheapest power plant is the one you never have to build, and as a result, the cleanest companies are the ones that actually reduce energy consumption. These companies deal with different challenges than those faced by clean energy companies who are attempting to unseat incumbent fossil fuels — mostly behavior challenges.

Let’s be honest. Even those of us who actively follow environmental issues have a difficult time changing our behavior. I rarely unplug all my appliances, although I know they use energy even when they are off. Sometimes, I throw a few things in the wash instead of waiting for a full load because I “need” them right away. Why do I do these things? Because, frankly, I have some bad habits, and it is very difficult to mentally quantify the impacts of these actions or comprehend the aggregated savings from changing my behavior.

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However, if you told me I could get some free ice cream at the end of the month in exchange for unplugging my appliances… well I’d probably do it. And it’s likely a lot of others would too. While the behavioral science behind this phenomenon is incredibly interesting, let’s instead take a look at a company who is tackling this problem in a creative way — and using promises of ice cream to change the world.

Create an Account + Change Behavior = Ice Cream

Our electricity system in undergoing a transition from a centralized, linear model to a networked energy web. This tectonic shift is being enabled by new technologies, many of which fall into the “information technology” bucket. The exciting implication of these emerging technologies is the potential for entirely new kinds of employment to be created in orbit around the electricity sector. One example of such a company is My Energy. On their site, you create an account, enable them to contact your utility to monitor your energy data, and then help you manage your energy use.

There are some aspects of their business that are effective, if not unique, such as showing you where you stand in comparison to your neighbors (OPower also offers this service). This helps consumers to conceptualize where their energy use stands in comparison to folks in a similar situation, and often a little Keeping-Up-With-The-Joneses is what is needed to create a change in energy use.

Other components of their business, such as the rewards program, are nothing short of brilliant. As I said above, it is tough for me to curtail my energy use based on nebulous ideas about kWh. But, give me a dinner or ice cream at the end of the month and you’ve got a deal. The rewards program offers a point system which then can be exchanged for incentives (like dinner or ice cream out on the town). The better you do at reducing your energy use, the more points you get.

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It is precisely these kinds of innovative companies that a new energy system will unleash. As I have argued before, there are many issues around the influx of new energy data that will have to be addressed. My Energy is an example of a third-party actor who can creatively use consumer’s energy data to help them reduce their monthly bills and save money.

Adam James is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.