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A Simple Billing Trick To Get People Competing Could Be What Ends Energy Waste

Getting customers upset that they have a higher electricity bill than their neighbors could prove to be the right incentive to lower energy use.

A Simple Billing Trick To Get People Competing Could Be What Ends Energy Waste
[Illustration: Grisha Bruev via Shutterstock]

Public service campaigns tell us to save energy, but many of us don’t listen. Messages like “switch off appliances when not in use” go in one ear and out the other. What has been effective in saving energy is services like Opower, which aggregate consumption data and give people tips on how to save. They work because we’re social animals. When we’re told our neighbors are saving money on electricity, we want to do the same.

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Anand Damani has a simple idea for adapting this in India, where energy efficiency is a priority. He wants to stamp people’s electricity bills with the average bill cost for their area. Why? Because most people don’t want to spend more than their neighbors.

Damani’s design outfit, Briefcase, recently tried out the idea in Bandra, Mumbai. It contacted several housing associations and asked to see electricity bills before they were sent to tenants. Over six months, Briefcase took bills from 86 households–unbeknown to the residents–and averaged out the amount they were paying. Then they stamped the bills both with that figure and a “frownie face” if the household was over the norm.

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After six months, the group of 86 homes had saved 1.3% overall. “Human behavior is contagious,” Damani says. “Our actions are often guided by how people around us are behaving. The average consumption in the society and a frownie next to their above-average amount on the bill let them know that their neighbors were consuming less and they were over-consuming. That set the social norm and the peer pressure got them to reduce their power consumption and their bill.”

A 1.3% saving isn’t that much in the context of 86 households, but extrapolated more widely, it could be a big deal. Briefcase is now talking to India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency about expanding idea (utilities would probably need to be involved, not just cooperative doormen).

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India needs to invest heavily to meet the needs of 1.2 billion people affected by blackouts, and the further 25% who have no access to grid electricity at all. But simple energy efficiency techniques could help while that’s happening.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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