That would be “yes” for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which announces on Tuesday that participants in a year-long experiment have reduced their water use by an average of 5%, or 3,300 gallons to 6,200 gallons per household annually, said Michael Hazinski, supervisor of water conservation at the utility district.
The utility district is touting the results of this pilot project at a time when drought is gripping California and elsewhere in the country. Water has historically been a cheap commodity. But with a rain shortage, many water agencies are worried about their long-term water supplies and trying to figure out the best ways to cut wasteful water use.
The project, funded by the California Water Foundation, makes use of data-crunching and visualization software from a San Francisco startup, WaterSmart. The company, which unveiled the project in late 2012, creates a personalized report for each residential customer using not only historical records of water use but also real estate, demographic and weather data. The real estate data includes information such as the size of a property, age of the home and even the number of bathrooms.
The report shows each household’s water use, how it compares with its neighbors and water-saving tips. WaterSmart mails and emails the report every two months to each home, and residents who view their reports online will also find information about rebates offered by the utility district for buying water-efficient appliances, such as clothes washers and toilets.
There has been no shortage of attempts by large companies, including Google and Microsoft, and startups to use technology to try to change people’s energy consumption habits. The big question has always been: how much do people really care about their daily energy use and would change their behavior over the long run?
Many have failed after introducing table-top displays or web portals and apps that showed hourly or daily energy use (typically electricity) and spending, as well as energy-saving recommendations. Some of the displays were simply too expensive and cost several hundred dollars. The portals and apps, some of them free, contained too much information for average consumers to plow through, or they were interesting to check out at first but just couldn’t retain people’s interest for some reason.
Some tech companies have found better success by lining up utilities as customers. Utilities have a long-established relationship with their customers, who are used to hearing from their energy providers every month. Reaching out to consumers via their utilities could be a lot easier than selling displays and promoting energy saving apps directly to them.
It just so happens that many utilities across the country are trying to figure out how best to use the growing amount of data collected by the smart meters they installed in recent years. These digital meters make manual meter reading by utility workers unnecessary, and they send energy use data of each home or business through a communication network regularly throughout the day.
Using these data to promote energy efficiency incentives is a good option. Some utilities are under regulatory mandates to run conservation programs. Others do so voluntarily to lower the energy use during hours of peak demand in order to avoid blackouts and costly repairs of their equipment. Virginia-based OPower has won many contracts with utilities, such as San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric, to use personalized data, competition and even social media to prod consumers into cutting their electricity consumption.
It turns that people are willing to change their behavior and use less electricity when they get data they could use. The same seems to work for water conservation as well, and the results of East Bay utility district’s pilot study is the latest example of that.
The pilot project involves about 10,000 households, though the data it uses come from old-style meters that still require manual reading. Now the utility district plans to expand the project to gradually include more of its customers. It serves 1.3 million water customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties via 380,000 service connections, 86% of which are located at single-family homes. The district is running another pilot project that uses smart meters.
The district is working on setting a budget for the broader rollout, said Hazinski, who declined to say whether the district has picked WaterSmart or another tech company for the rollout.