Clark Public Utilities to offer a way to track energy use

Pilot program will launch this fall with 20,000 customers

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A pilot program set to launch this fall will give Clark Public Utilities customers a closer look at their energy usage, and a chance to see how they stack up against their neighbors.

In an effort to entice people to conserve, the utility will send periodic "home energy reports" to about 20,000 customers, detailing their usage and suggestions on how to cut back. A separate Facebook application will allow customers to compare their results online with others, or even coordinate friendly energy-saving competitions.

Utilities across the country have joined the program, crafted by Virginia-based conservation company OPower, in recent years. The Bonne-ville Power Administration helped bring Southwest Washington into the mix earlier this year, kicking in $300,000 to help two local utilities and a Puget Sound-area utility roll out their own versions.

The idea, said BPA program lead Summer Goodwin, is to help people tackle energy conservation from a new vantage point.

"Usually, we're talking about technology," Goodwin said. "Here, we're talking about human or organizational behavior."

Plenty of people have taken it upon themselves to use less energy where they can. But a little competition doesn't hurt.

Here's how it works: Clark Public utilities will initially select a pool of 30,000 customers who might be able to cut back on excess energy usage based on past history, said Larry Blaufus, a senior manager with the utility. About 20,000 of those will start receiving home energy reports in the mail by September and October.

The utility will keep track of how much they cut back, he said, using the other 10,000 customers (who won't receive reports) as a sort of control group to gauge the difference.

The Facebook application puts the same concept into a social media platform. But that will be an opt-in model, meaning people will have to sign themselves up if they want to share information against others. The results can be valuable, even if online participation isn't as high, Blaufus said.

"We think we'd be pretty lucky to get 500," he said.

Clark Public Utilities' suggestions for reducing energy will run the gamut, Blaufus said. They might include simple — and behavioral — changes like turning the thermostat down or adjusting the setting on the hot water heater. Bigger changes might mean using more energy-efficient lights or changing out appliances. What's realistic depends on the household and its situation, Blaufus said.

Cowlitz PUD plans to launch its own version of the engagement program using mobile technology, according to Goodwin. The Snohomish County PUD, based in Everett, will also take part.

Local officials hope the program prompts people to rethink their energy usage before continuing old practices. The end result, however, is up to customers themselves.

"You can kind of gauge whether you're being fairly efficient in your home or not," Blaufus said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.