PowerDown brings energy conservation to competitions
How do you get homeowners and businesses to cut energy consumption? One group of energy-minded entrepreneurs believes a little bit of fun and games can kick-start a new lifestyle and a slimmer carbon footprint.
PowerDown, formed by Ilana Greene, Pezdi Makumbe and Attila Forruchi, members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Club, recently completed its first pilot energy competition with 100 households and hopes to expand and provide national competitions that directly interface with home utility meters.
While PowerDown and a handful of other groups are pushing energy competitions as an easy way to inspire conservation, some leading energy-efficiency experts are concerned that the programs could muddy the message that it takes both behavioral and structural changes to reduce consumption long-term.
“Some people will look at this and be reminded of Jimmy Carter,” referring to the president’s sweater-donning effort to get Americans to turn down the thermostat, said Steve Cowell, president and CEO of Conservation Services Group Inc., a Westborough firm that runs state and utility energy conservation programs. “They’re interesting, they get people’s attention, but what we don’t know is whether it creates a short-term uptick and then fades away. There really is no substitute for structural, technology-based changes.”
PowerDown is looking to base its energy competitions on the successes of the MIT Dorm Challenge, which pits residence halls against one another to see which can cut its power consumption the most.
PowerDown’s competitions are a mix of friendly battles between communities, social organization members or even a group of friends as well as opportunities to take those savings and put them to good use.
“If you change a light bulb, that’s one thing, but if you knew that money you saved was going to a good cause you might be more incentivized to do something,” Greene said.
Currently the group is running their competitions via Facebook and has about 430 members, of which 70 percent participate in the competitions that run for about 90 days. Participants receive e-mails with tips on how to be more efficient and can share their own strategies with others. The group plans to link the competitions up with local charities so participants can donate their savings.
The group, whose backgrounds range from a Goldman Sachs financial analyst to manager at Aspen Technology, met through the energy club and saw the many financial incentives and technological improvements that consumers could use to track energy consumption. All that was needed was the impetus.
But finding a business model that works for energy competition ventures is difficult. One local competition, the Energy Smackdown, is operated by the BrainShift Foundation, and its “second season” saw residents from Arlington, Cambridge and Medford compete against each other.
Forruchi said PowerDown, which has not taken private funding, is talking to energy or environmentally minded nonprofits and foundations to seek out grant funding, but the bigger financial opportunity comes in serving utilities required to expand energy efficiency efforts, “but aren’t in the businesses of organizing competitions or getting involved in the retail end in developing applications to form communities.”
Utilities have not been opposed to ponying up funding for competitions. Boston-based NStar provided technical support and marketing dollars to Energy Smackdown’s most recent competition, but officials said any ratepayer money spent must have a tangible return on investment.
“We have to be very careful with how we spend our efficiency dollars because, at the end of the day, we have to prove to the state that what we spent actually produced energy savings,” said NStar spokesman Michael Durand.