Will society unplug?

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By Elisa Wood

May 21, 2009

As a society, we’re accused of being too plugged-in, too reliant on our computers, televisions, and charged-up cell phones. Turns out, we are willing to unplug.

A study by SmartPower (http://www.smartpower.org/) found that unplugging unused appliances, those sucking up vampire energy, is an energy savings act people are willing to do. And they don’t just say they will unplug – they do unplug.

This is an important distinction because often people tell researchers that they intend to conserve power or buy renewable energy. But when it comes time to do act, they balk. SmartPower was able to discern where and when people walk-the-walk through a “Living Diary” study, part of a two-year effort in New England to see how the economy, volatile energy prices and environmental concerns motivate consumers.

Smartpower followed the activities of 81 people for two weeks. The participants were given daily questions, homework and tasks, which led to over 1,000 diary entries.

“Unplugging was the most frequent efficiency experience. Panelists reported that it was the easiest to perform, required the least sacrifice and was the most universally relevant to all participants,” SmartPower said in recent comments filed before the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control.

Such research becomes increasingly important as the industry seeks ways to spur consumers to act in a more energy efficient way, an approach known as “residential behavioral strategy.”

In Connecticut, SmartPower and two other companies have proposed an ambitious behavioral strategy program intended to encourage people to cut energy use 20% by 2020. The trio – which also includes Earth Markets (http://earthmarkets.com/), a finance company, and Efficiency 2.0 (http://efficiency20.com/), a software firm – offers consumers several goodies, among them free compact fluorescent lights and software to monitor energy use online.

But that’s not all. The program includes two of the biggest all-time motivators for the US consumer: beating the Jones and earning cash. Communities compete to see who saves the most energy and the results appear on line for all to see. In addition, participants have the chance to earn money through the sale of efficiency certificates or “white tags,” a currency of value in Connecticut. Consumers and businesses can earn a certificate for each megawatthour of energy they save. They sell the white tags to utilities and others who must, under state law, produce or buy a certain number each year to help the state achieve its efficiency goals.

The program must still win regulatory approval (http://www.dpuc.state.ct.us/dockcurr.nsf/(Web+Main+View/Search+Electric)?OpenView&StartKey=05-07-19RE02) . But if it does, its 200,000 customers would not only earn money from white tags but also save money on their energy bills – for a total financial gain estimated to be $100 million.

Not a bad benefit. Definitely worth the time of unplugging the appliances at night.

Visit Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.