When homeowners monitor energy use, knowledge is power

Consumer Reports News: September 25, 2012 05:08 PM

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If you're like the average American, you'll spend about six minutes this year reading your utility bill. That lack of engagement by consumers with their home's energy consumption is seen as a stumbling block for energy efficiency initiatives. Last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy launched the Green Button program to help consumers better manage their energy usage. The initiative is succeeding, according to an industry report released today, though there's still a lot of work to be done.

The Green Button initiative was founded on a sort of "if you build it, they will come" premise. The theory was that establishing an open data standard for consumers to download information about their home's energy consumption should, in turn, spur software developers to create smartphone and web-based apps to help those consumers take advantage of this newly available information.

"The good news is that both [things] are happening," says Lisa Wood, executive director of Innovation Electricity Efficiency (IEE), which published today's report Green Button: One Year Later. "To date, 20 utilities—representing almost 30 percent of the nation's residential customers—have created, or have committed to create, a "Green Button" on their website for their customers to download their energy use info in an easy-to-understand format. And 36 technology companies are now developing apps to use the Green Button data."

To find out if your utility company is part of the program, or will be signing on soon, visit the adopters page of the Green Button website. One example: Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), whose 4.5 million customers in California can download their home's energy data through the MyEnergy customer portal on the company website. PG&E customers can then upload the data to a third-party web application, such as Leafully, which helps consumers understand how their actions are impacting the environment and their budget.

The PG&E example shows the progress of Green Button, but also where there's room for improvement. It's nice that customers can access this information, but all that downloading and uploading is a hassle, especially given the six-minute annual attention span of the average energy consumer. In its report, IEE calls for a push towards the automation of data transfer so that people can send their data to third parties with the click of a button. The group also proposes establishing a framework for authorizing third parties and the creation of a go-to marketplace for Green Button applications.

If your utility is not part of the Green Button initiative, there are still plenty of ways to take control of your energy bills. Consumer Reports latest report on programmable thermostats, for example, found that these devices could lower your annual heating and cooling costs by $180. And some of the latest energy-efficient lightbulbs we've tested promise savings of about $130 over the life of the bulb.

Daniel DiClerico

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