Why Won't Social Networking Friend Energy Conservation?


Photo by 10ch via Flickr CC

Why are most people in the US not active about conserving energy? For many companies working on energy conservation tools, the answer seems to be because we haven't found the sweet spot for creating rewards for saving energy, beyond a lowered monthly utility bill. Starting a few years ago, the solution seemed clear: link social networking with energy conservation. Somewhere in the mix of online gaming, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms there would be a social motivation to get people to conserve electricity. But nothing has really gained traction. And more importantly, quite a few of the start-up ideas are falling by the wayside. Why?

Why Is Social Networking Not Working for Energy Conservation?
Scientific American's George Musser asks this question. Answering his own question, he writes, "I'm not quite sure what is going wrong, but my hunch is that people would sooner divulge their salaries than their energy stats. Or maybe they just don't know their stats. If you fall into this category, get yourself a real-time energy monitor. Point being, the technology is out there--what lacks, for reasons good or bad, is the willingness to use it."

Social networks seemed to be the solution, indeed they may still be. But we haven't seen a mainstream approval of talking about energy use in the same breath as what happened on Jersey Shore last night. And it's that level of cultural acceptance of discussing energy use that would make social media a real solution for putting energy conservation at top of mind.

Companies Know Social Media Is a Solution... If Only People Cared
It's not as if companies aren't trying. Google created PowerMeter, OPower and Tendril both have social networking built into their platforms for utilities, and even the Tweet-A-Watt won for best gadget concept at Greener Gadgets three years ago.

Yet other platforms with big names backing them aren't doing so well. In January, Earth2Tech reported that Hug Energy shut down after low interest from investors. Wattzy shut down, citing the political atmosphere wasn't supportive of energy-saving retrofits for homes. The biggest example may be Microsoft Hohm. There was a big push by Microsoft to get their free platform out to users and popular as a type of social media interaction. But the company never found the type of user engagement it needed to make Hohm work and now it is shifting focus to work more with EV charging.

Chris Kaiser of Map-a-Watt writes, "The most interesting thing to me about Hohm is that it was never that interesting to the masses...[I]t turns out, neighbors aren't exactly clamoring to their computers to compare their energy consumption. This is something we all have come to realize. I've said many times over the last 2 years of blogging that if I were writing about Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, or (insert pop star who does nothing to improve America's future yet is the darling of the media), then the Mapawatt blog would be extremely profitable. But "residential energy and sustainability" just doesn't seem that high on everyone's list."

Does Energy Conservation Have To Have Celebrity Status?
But is it really that we need energy consumption to be as popular as Charlie Sheen's Twitter stream in order to make it interesting? Social networking is about more than just gabbing about what's hot in pop culture. It's also about connecting with other people, using each other as support networks, information sharing, and knowledge resources. It's about having people around you with whom to share information. And trying to find your energy stats, understand them, and improve them could use just such a platform.

How is it that something like "checking in" to places and telling everyone exactly where you are at all times has become popular, yet sharing how many pounds of CO2 you saved that month hasn't?

I don't pretend to have an answer. It could be an issue of feeling too much like we're bragging, or not latching on to the competitive spirit companies building the platforms thought we had in us. It could be that we don't feel enough of our friends care about our energy consumption and so we'd be the odd ball in our social sphere, twittering about kilowatts and carbon emissions while everyone else is discussing something more comprehensible. It could be none of us feel confident enough about our energy use to want to tell the world about it -- like wanting to lose weight before going to the gym.

But what we do know is that in the age of telling the world our every thought and action on Twitter and Facebook, sharing what we had for breakfast seems to be more important than sharing what we did to reduce our carbon footprint.

Social networking hasn't become a solid tool for bringing energy conservation to the forefront of conversation. But can it still? While I can't say what's holding us back from making energy consumption as common in our online conversations as food preferences or gadget gossip, I do think that there is hope for it yet.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Energy Conservation
The Power Monitor: Top Tools for Watching Your Home Energy Use
West Coast Green 2009: Can Energy Dashboards Change Behavior, Permanently?

Tags: Electricity | Energy Efficiency | Social Media

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