In one of the lower profile energy measures that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed earlier in October (SB 488), California will mandate that all of its major utilities create pilot programs for sharing energy use information among neighbors as a means of spurring more energy saving behavior by residential customers. There is growing data that the psychology of peer pressure works in getting people to take energy saving steps.

The concept is summed up by the psychology community as the “norm to conform,” and when energy users are informed that they are using more energy than their neighbors they will usually respond by cutting their consumption, according to a national consultant’s program ongoing with a number of utilities in California and elsewhere around the nation.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has been running a program involving 35,000 of its residential customers since April 2008, and about 75% of the customers have taken action to cut their energy usage once they began receiving monthly statements comparing their use with that of their neighbors.

An Arlington, VA-based energy efficiency software firm, Opower, has been working with SMUD and a number of utilities around the nation to get consumers to see their energy use in a broader context and take action if necessary. The results that Opower has seen with SMUD and other utilities became the basis for SB 488 legislation, according to a report Sunday in the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to SMUD’s program, Sempra Energy’s two California utilities, San Diego Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co., have ongoing programs as does Southern California Edison Co. In the public sector, Glendale Water and Power will start a program with 25,000 of its 83,000 households in November, and Pasadena Water and Power will do the same early next year, according to the LA Times report.

More than one million residential customers are receiving the Opower home energy report across the nation. Participants are randomly selected by the utilities involved and then provided targeted, personalized information concerning their household energy use. In 2010, water consumption information also will be provided.

The Opower program is based on behavioral science research pioneered by university professor and author Robert Cialdini, who is an investor in Opower.

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