Game On: Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid0

Emily Gertz | Mon Aug 29 2011 |

If your latest power bill read more like a report card than a list of numbers and technical terms, would you be more apt to read it? What if, instead of offering an incomprehensible figure about the “total kilowatt-hours” your energy bill graded your energy efficiency as “average,” “good,” or “great,” as compared to 100 of your nearest neighbors? Or told you how much a similar household paid in energy bills compared to yours?

Then, having whetted your competitive instincts, what if the bill included some easy-to-use energy-saving tips that might move you up the leaderboard?

This idea of an engaging “home energy report” isn’t just a wishful pipedream. It’s a real-world example of “gamification:” solving problems by communicating selective data in a game-structured format, one that engages our natural affinities for competition and play.

Everybody’s got game

In advertising and marketing, game-based campaigns are as simple as looking under the bottle cap to see if you’ve won a prize, or as complex as the social media platform Foursquare, where participants use GPS-enabled smartphones to vie for points and badges by checking into their favorite locations.

It turns out that gamification is already emerging as an important tool for reducing home energy use, as well as fine-tuning the timing of energy demand—goals that have been dogged for years by negative associations with the term “energy conservation.” With its overtones of scarcity and financial strain, the notion of conservation comes across to many as dreary; or even worse: as a moral imperative.

A games-based approach takes the focus off self-improvement or self-denial.

As former Vice President Dick Cheney famously dismissed in April 2001, “Conservation is a sign of personal virtue but it’s not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

As recently as the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, global events have put Cheney’s comment to the test, and it has failed to stand up to the pressure. Energy efficiency, it turns out, is part of comprehensive national policies on security and the environment. But knowing this has not done much to change how we generate and use energy.

Instead, a games-based approach takes the focus off self-improvement or self-denial. Incentives like points, social status, positive messages and rewards (either tangible or conceptual)—matched with immediately useful information—give customers tangible, practical, and positive ways to participate in a utility’s energy efficiency program.

Information-based energy efficiency

In the United States, gamification may be central to implementing “smart grids,” which involve modernizing aging power generation and transmission systems, and harnessing them to contemporary information technology and data systems.

According to smart grid expert Christine Hertzog, gamification is “a great tool for utilities and smart grid vendors to use with residential customers to communicate complex concepts around energy efficiency, demand response, integration of distributed generation, and new pricing programs.”

Opower, the Virginia-based software company that developed the home energy report, terms the practice “information-based energy efficiency.”  The company works with around 50 utilities to create tailored home energy reports, targeting them at ratepayers who will be most able and most likely to respond. In Sacramento, Calif., the Sacramento Municipal Utility District estimates that the 35,000 ratepayers receiving Opower home energy reports (around 5 percent of the households it serves) have cut energy use by 14.2 gigawatt-hours a year since the program began in 2008.

Opower claims that overall, customers receiving its home energy reports have saved about 400 million kilowatt-hours and that this figure will more than double by the end of 2012 to 1 terawatt—the equivalent of taking 100,000 American households entirely off the grid.

There remains little doubt that gamification is proving itself as an important tool in helping ratepayers save money and energy, for utilities seeking to refine their generation capacity and manage demand, and for policymakers implementing ambitious and complex updates in energy efficiency standards. If you want to learn more about the concept, some great places to start include the gamification Wiki and the blog Gamification Research Network.

Now if we could just make our taxes read more like a comic book.

Illustration by Next Studio