Customers click with energy information online

by Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

What caught Tammy Yeakel’s eye was the colorful pie chart. Each section within it identified some form of household energy use — heating, lighting, cooking and so on — as well as the percentage of her electric bill that might be represented by that slice of the pie.

That’s what grabbed her attention the first time she strayed from the “pay my bill” section of her electricity provider’s web site and took a tour of “Energy Analyzer,” (see Figure 1) an online information resource offered by PPL Electric Utilities of Allentown, Penn.

Since the site’s launch, nearly 20 percent of PPL’s 1.4 million electricity customers have explored Energy Analyzer to learn more about their electricity use. Many then used the information they found to spur changes in their consumption. In fact, PPL’s web-site experience offers proof that, indeed, knowledge saves power.

Conservation by the numbers

When consumers have day-to-day access to energy-usage data, they can manage their energy use, notes PPL spokesman Ryan Hill. Studies show that to be true. Timely feedback has helped consumers cut energy use by as much as 15 percent.

PPL’s web site has been providing daily usage information since autumn of 2007 and hourly data since this past November. In the two months after the hourly data went online, it was accessed some 60,000 times, Hill says. More than 100,000 people have filled out household profiles, so that the pie charts they see when they log on reflect energy specifics for their own houses.

Tammy Yeakel was one of PPL’s customers who filled in the profile survey. “You can customize the information,” she explains. It’s one of the features she likes best on the site.

She also likes the site’s links to energy-saving advice. “That’s how I really use this,” she says. In fact, she has acted on the conservation tips PPL offers. Over time, Yeakel has caulked cracks around windows, installed compact florescent light bulbs and “learned about wrapping the hot-water heater. It definitely made a difference,” she notes. “The water gets hotter quicker, and it lasts longer.”

Every little bit helps

Yeakel isn’t the only site user who’s hooked on watching her consumption data. Apartment-dweller Carolyn Ofalt — another person who noticed Energy Analyzer when she was online paying her bill — says she used to check out her usage information only when she logged on to pay up. “I recently learned about viewing graphs for daily or weekly energy use, so that makes me look more often,” she notes.

Like Yeakel, Ofalt filled out the personalization profile and, like Yeakel, she’s taken action to cut her consumption. “I filled out one of the surveys, and PPL sent me two of the florescent light bulbs,” she recalls. “Now I use them all over the apartment.”

PPL’s site also gives users a chance to see how their energy use compares to that of others with similar households. Both Ofalt and Yeakel score on the low end of the energy-use scale.

So, what motivates them? For Ofalt, it’s the environment. “I want to do my part,” she says. Yeakel mentions the environment after citing her number one payoff: “Why send your money to the electric company when you can save it for something else?” she asks.

That said, she still talks about recycling, keeps her digital photo frame turned off because it’s “an energy sucker” and, recently, she was pleased to learn about eco-friendly paint. Clearly, planetary health matters to her, too.

Such views go hand in hand with recent results from a study conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association. Researchers found that 69 percent of consumers said they’d engage in “Green behaviors” because “it’s the right thing to do.” That was followed by 63 percent, who said “saving money” was a good reason to go Green.

If PPL’s growth in site visits is any indication, more consumers will look for consumption information in the future. The site averaged 5,300 visits per week in 2007. For 2009, it’s up to 47,000 visits per week so far, says Hill.

Customer satisfaction has grown during that period, too. “When we rolled out our e-power campaign in 2007, 28 percent of our customers were telling us they were ‘highly satisfied’ with our efforts to reduce their bills,” he recalls. The number has risen steadily. In Q4 2008, 43 percent of residential customers gave PPL that “highly satisfied’ ranking on this issue, Hill adds.

It’s likely the Energy Analyzer has had an impact on this satisfaction measure. As Yeakel says, “I love the information. I think they designed it just for me.”

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to Utilimetrics News, the monthly publication of Utilimetrics (formerly the Automatic Meter Reading Association).

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