Canadian utilities consider grading customers on smiley face scale

Expensive utility bills leave many Canadians sporting a frown, but some who tear open their monthly statement might soon have a happy face smiling back at them.

VANCOUVER — Expensive utility bills leave many Canadians sporting a frown, but some who tear open their monthly statement might soon have a happy face smiling back at them.

Toronto Hydro is among a handful of Canadian utility companies considering a program that will start grading customers and their consumption habits on a smiley-face scale.

The program, which is the brainchild of U.S. firm Positive Energy, has been picked up by 15 utility companies south of the border. Both the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Washington-based Puget Sound Energy use it and both have reported drops in energy consumption of two per cent.

The program also compares the energy use of power customers to their neighbours.

Alex Laskey, president and co-founder of Positive Energy, said his company is saving enough energy to power a city of 100,000 people.

Laskey said Positive Energy’s bar graphs, charts, and yes, even smiley faces, heighten the awareness level of power customers.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans, and Canadians too, think that saving energy is important and that wasting energy is bad,” he said.

“Yet, next to no one has any idea whether they’re actually doing a good job.”

Laskey, a Harvard graduate, said he’s always been befuddled on how he could know the cost of gasoline within a penny or two without having any idea whether his home was efficient.

“The only thing that we get that’s personalized about our home energy use is a bill from the utility. The bill is effectively inscrutable,” he said.

“I’ve looked at Canadian bills, too, so I know they’re equally inscrutable. The only thing that’s a clear take-home message is ‘here’s what you owe and here’s where you send the cheque.”’

To that end, Laskey and fellow Positive Energy founder Dan Yates began approaching utility companies with an idea on how to breed a better informed energy customer.

The company’s consumption reports allow customers to see if they are using more or less energy than their neighbours.

No names or addresses are used in the reports and the neighbours classification is broken down into two categories.

The “all neighbours” category consists of 100 nearby homes that are similar in size and “efficient neighbours” consists of the most efficient 20 per cent from those homes.

Customers are graded as great, which earns them two smiley faces on the bill; good, which earns one smiley face; or below average, which gets none.

Sacramento’s Alexandra Crawford said her district initially gave those receiving the below average designation a frowning face, though that was scrapped when some customers complained.

The home energy reports track the customer’s progress from year to year and offer personalized tips on how to further conserve.

Laskey said Positive Energy is currently in talks with a handful of Canadian firms, though he wouldn’t specify which since negotiations are ongoing.

But Toronto Hydro spokeswoman Tanya Bruckmueller confirmed her company’s interest.

“It is something that we’re definitely looking at but we still haven’t made a decision or (reached) a consensus on how to proceed,” she said.

Laskey said Positive Energy will deliver its reports to more than one million American homes by the end of the year, and he’s hopeful the first set of Canadian reports will go out by the beginning of next year.

He said research is still underway to determine exactly why the reports have proven so successful in curbing energy use, but Crawford said she’s heard a number of different reasons from Sacramento residents.

“There are customers that respond to being less than average (in comparison to their neighbours) in any area in their life, and then they want to raise their game,” she said.

“And there are some customers who have clearly responded to the personal comparisons and wanting to do better than they themselves did the year before.”

Crawford said she’s even fielded calls from some customers who had no idea what a kilowatt hour was until the detailed reports arrived in their mailbox.

“They felt less a sense of competition as being glad they had finally been given a point of reference.”

Sacramento was the first district to introduce the ranking system in April 2008. Of the company’s 550,000 customers, 35,000 currently receive the reports as part of a pilot program.

Rebekah Anderson, spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy, said the reports, which come in a separate envelope, currently reach 40,000 of her company’s randomly selected customers.

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