TED 2010: David Cameron Shows How All Electric Bills Should Be

ted 2010 david cameron photo

Image: Screen Grab from TED Talk
A Smarter Electric Bill
During his recent talk at the TED conference, David Cameron, the leader of the conservative party in the UK, talked about many things like how to do more with less money, how to measure well-being and not just GDP, etc... But there's one idea that stood out as a particularly clever. It's not something new, and certainly not Cameron's idea, but it's worth highlighting because it's a low-hanging fruit in energy efficiency and would certainly be less expensive than big infrastructure changes.
ted 2010 david cameron photo

Image: Screen Grab from TED Talk
How it Works
The basic principle is simple: Instead of only telling people how much energy they used (f.ex. 100 kWh in the past 30 days), you tell them how much they used, but also how much their neighbors used and how much the most efficient of their neighbors used. This small tweak changes a lot psychologically.

Instead of just having an abstract number without much context (most people have no idea what a kWh really is), you get a relative number. This makes thinking about electricity consumption more active, rather than the passive approach of just paying the bill.

If you're doing much worse than your neighbors (who usually have houses of similar size), this shows you that you can do better. If you're doing better than average, this encourages you to keep going. It's the healthiest kind of competition, and if it's done right, it isn't paternalistic or moralistic. It just gives you extra context and a benchmark to aim for.

It's Already Implemented in Some Places
The USA Today recently had a short piece about this: "More than 1 million U.S. households now receive reports on how their energy consumption compares with their neighbors as utilities encourage conservation, some with smiley faces for those doing well."

So far the reductions in electricity consumption in the houses that have those bills has been relatively small (2-3%), but that number is expected to keep climbing, and there are not doubt ways to make the bills have an even bigger impact (f.ex. you could print a different energy-saving tip of them each time, give URLs to websites with tips, etc). There's also a good chance that when the recession is over, more people will be willing to spend money to make their houses more energy efficient (insulation, electronic thermostats, Energy Star appliances, high-efficiency furnaces, etc).

If something as simple as printing a bill differently helps reduce a household's electricity consumption by around 5%, that would be pretty significant since buildings are #1 when it comes to energy use (and thus CO2 emissions).

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