Saving Energy: I’ll Do it My Way

April 14, 2015
Saving energy used to be about not forgetting to flip the switch when you left the room. But no more. Utilities are making it easier for us to pursue energy savings in a far more sophisticated way. Here’s Commonwealth Edison’s approach.

Credit: William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress)

Saving energy used to be about not forgetting to flip the switch when you left the room. But those days have gone the way of the land line and video store.

Today saving energy isn’t so much about you remembering something, but your utility remembering something about you.

Utilities are finally getting into the game, already figured out by Amazon and Netflix, of analyzing who you are and sending personalized communications that suit you.

Illinois-based Commonwealth Edison is taking this kind of customized marketing to a new height with a segmentation tool now offered by Opower.

With this program, you are no longer a generic electricity consumer who will receive a generic message about the value of saving energy.  Instead, you’re someone who lives in a 10-year-old house, heated by natural gas. You bought a refrigerator last year, and you have a pool. And while you’re a bit skeptical, you’re willing to pursue energy efficiency, if its virtues are presented to you in a certain way. The utility’s job is to figure out the way.

In a recent interview, Jana Jones, ComEd’s senior program manager for energy efficiency, offered insight into how the program works.  We chose ComEd to talk to because of the depth of customer analysis it undertakes with the Opower behavioral platform. Opower says that no other large utility, so far, has pursued the same level of detail and targeting with the program.

Drilling Down

Of course, it all begins with data, lots of it, from the utility as well as Opower’s repository and public sources.

Read more about Opower’s energy saving initiatives by downloading the free white paper, “Transform Every Customer into a Demand Response Resource.”

After analyzing the data, ComEd sends out messages to customers that will help them save energy — and money — in a way that best suits them.

Say the data reveals that the customer is struggling financially. That customer would not receive an email advertising an expensive HVAC upgrade, but instead might get information about no-cost/low cost energy saving tips or in-store discounts on CFLS or LEDs.

The program also helps the utility avoid marketing to you in a way that might embarrass the company and annoy you.

For example, the utility can discern who recently participated in a refrigerator and freezer recycling program, and then customize messages to them accordingly. The utility might send a thank you note, and use the opportunity to recommend that the customer participate in another program, such as the home energy assessment.

“We never want to send someone a message to recycle their old, second working fridge if they’ve just done that. Chances are they don’t have a bunch of them lying around,” Jones said.

Maybe it turns out that the customer already signed up for the home assessment program too. At that point, the Opower program would reveal other details about the customer to figure out the next best move.

If the house is old and the summer electricity usage is high, for example, the customer might be ready to replace the air conditioning system.  In that case, the utility would send the customer information about available incentives to encourage an upgrade.

Steady Eddy?

The utility can drill down even further, if the customer has a smart meter. (About 800,000 ComEd customers now have smart meters.) ComEd sends Opower the refined usage data provided by the meter.  Opower marries the usage data with other household characteristics and then categorizes the customer into one of several groups.

For example, a ‘Steady Eddy’ is home all day and usage doesn’t shift much. In contrast, another house might be empty all day and then heavily consume energy upon arriving home at night.

“That’s where we can tailor our messaging to highlight some things that they can do. Even though they are going to use more energy naturally at that time of day, there are ways they can be more efficient about it,” Jones said.

The utility has ramped up its home assessment program significantly, from 340,000 customers last year to 1.5 million this year. Each customer receives at least one highly customized message per year. Messages are likely to differ by season; for example, this summer ComEd plans to focus strongly on programmable thermostats.

Results are still preliminary, but program managers are reporting anecdotally that the marketing messages are increasing customer pursuit of energy savings. ComEd expects the Opower platform to help its customers save 200,000 MWh, about two percent annually on their electricity bills — probably a whole lot more than any of us would achieve by trying to remember to turn off the lights when we leave the room.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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