The challenge? Use less.

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December 8, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Bryn Mawr launches energy saving competition

BRYN MAWR — Think of it as “The Biggest Loser” for your home.

In the reality-TV weight-loss competition, the person who sheds the most pounds through diet and exercise wins. In the Bryn Mawr Sustainable Community Energy Competition, it’s bloated utility bills that get put on a diet.

Beginning this month, dozens of Bryn Mawr households, divided into seven neighborhood teams, will compete to demonstrate the biggest gains in energy efficiency. The Center for Energy and Environment [CEE], a Minneapolis-based environmental nonprofit, will track participants’ utility bills over the next year to determine a winner.

Bekah Padilla, a Bryn Mawr resident who helped organize the competition, said there would be a party roughly one year from now with prizes for the winning team. But everyone who participates stands to earn at least one prize: lower utility bills over the next 12 months, and maybe beyond.

The neighborhood set a goal to recruit 120 households.

“We’d like to do something that gets the whole neighborhood thinking in a different way,” Padilla said.

The idea is to make energy efficiency just, well, normal.

Thinking green, acting green

Lester Shen, director of innovative technologies at CEE, said few of us have a clear picture of how our energy use compares to our neighbors’. That means a major incentive to conserve is missing.

The same isn’t true when you’re talking about automobiles, for example, Shen said.

The owner of a gas-guzzling SUV knows she could do a lot better than 20 miles per gallon because gas mileage data is widely available. Not only that, she can see the new Toyota Prius parked in her neighbor’s driveway.

There’s no easy way to sneak a peak at a neighbor’s utility bills, though. The Bryn Mawr energy competition -changes that.

Each household that participates will get a report from CEE comparing that month’s gas and electricity usage to both a typical Minnesota home and an energy-efficient home. They also will see the average for the households on their team compared to the other neighborhood teams.

“Basically, it’s a form of feedback that looks at social norms,” Shen explained. “… It’s been found that does motivate energy-saving behavior.”

Padilla said she learned about the role of social norms in changing behavior at a sustainability workshop she attended recently. If people see their peers conserving energy — if it seems normal — they’ll conserve, too, she said.

To protect the privacy of Bryn Mawr residents, CEE will list the data from individual households anonymously. But residents will know where they rank among other competitors.

“I’ll be anxious to see where I fit in,” Padilla said.

Shen said competitors agreed to give CEE access to the previous year’s utility bills. He’ll use those 12 months worth of data to establish a “baseline” for each household, against which they’ll measure improvements.

Small changes, big savings

Barry Schade was one of the first Bryn Mawr residents to sign on for the energy competition. That was despite a disadvantage going into the game.

Over the past year, Schade made a few small changes, like hanging laundry outside to dry during the summer instead of running the clothes dryer. He also switched a number of household lights to compact fluorescent light bulbs from less-efficient incandescent bulbs.

Already, Schade has seen his energy bills drop by about 7 percent.

In the Bryn Mawr competition, it’s the bigger energy users — with more potential to save — who have the advantage. By setting a low baseline of energy usage over the past year, Schade set himself a high bar for the upcoming competition.

Still, he offers a good example of the easy, relatively painless changes that can make a big difference in utility bills.

Shen said a few simple behavioral changes could lead to an energy savings of 10 percent. With more work, a savings of 25 percent or even 40 percent on combined gas and electricity bills is not out of the question, he added.

(The Minnesota Energy Challenge website, www.mnenergychallenge.org, is a good place to look for tips, Shen said.)

For many people, the promise of smaller utility bills might be incentive enough to join the competition.

Reflecting on his many neighbors who are also dedicated gardeners, Schade guessed Bryn Mawr residents were already inclined to think about
conservation.

“I think a lot of people in the neighborhood already have their hands in the earth, to some degree,” he said. “I think it’s a very natural neighborhood to look at the issue of sustainability.”