With all the social media out there, can't someone figure out a way to use social networking to help save energy? One environmental group believes it has found a way.
On Tuesday, Opower announced a new "social energy app" that can be used with Facebook friends to compare energy usage. The organization said in a statement that the app, the result of a six-month development effort, is intended to help users find energy savings opportunities, in a spirit of friendly competition and shared information between friends, schools, non-profit organizations, or companies.
16 Participating Utilities
The app, available by searching Opower on Facebook or visiting a participating utility's Web site, allows users to sign on with their Facebook login, and then connect their utility account, if their utility is a participating organization. With this data, the app allows users to compare specifics, set up contests, and use other features intended to raise informational awareness about energy use.
The app is a collaboration between Opower, Facebook,and the National Resources Defense Council. Opower said it is developing new features for the app, such as connecting with smart meter and gas meter data. Previously, Opower had been delivering energy-saving information to customers of participating utilities by mail.
Opower said that 16 utilities nationwide are participating in its network, representing 20 million households, or about one in every six consumer customers of electricity in the U.S. The release of the app follows, by a few months, the Green Button initiative from the White House, a challenge for utilities to enable customers to download and compare data about their energy use.
Utilities currently working with Opower include ComEd in Chicago, Burbank Water & Power, Consumers Energy in Michigan, City of Palo Alto Utilities, Rochester Public Utilities, and Pacific Gas & Electric in California. Users whose utilities are not participants will need to enter their own usage data.
Aggregated, anonymous data can also be accessed by the app from the nearly six-dozen utilities involved with Opower, representing collective information for about 60 million customers.
The usefulness of the information available through the social energy app is enhanced in homes with smart meters, which take into account such conditions as weather and humidity to make more consistent comparisons between different energy usage periods.
Alex Lasky, founder of Opower, told The New York Times that "the utility industry is not known for its cutting-edge customer service, mostly because they're regulated monopolies." Now, he said, that's changing "in a profound way," with a wider use of social networking, alerts, sophisticated usage reports, and other tools.
We asked Current Analysis' Brad Shimmin whether this new kind of social app could be useful to consumers or businesses. He said that it could well "turn out to be very useful, since people don't often talk to others" about the specifics of their energy usage, adding that transparency can help drive a market to efficiency.
Shimmin said that he could see other kinds of social apps being developed that would allow one person or company to compare costs and usage to another, such as a social app that would compare broadband performance. The key to saving money, he noted, is not
only being able to make usage more efficient, but also "being able to shop around" -- an ability that is not always available to electric utility customers.