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Palo Alto program aims to make energy savings a 'social' affair

Original post made on Apr 4, 2012

Palo Alto residents who keep their energy use low now have something besides lower bills to show for their efforts -- bragging rights. The Utilities Department this week rolled out its latest application for promoting energy conservation -- a Facebook app that allows customers to track and share their energy uses.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 9:06 AM

Comments (38)

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 9:39 am

This article gives no mention of the cost of this "service" to our utilities company. Already they are mailing out a similar "service" which must cost a great deal in mailing alone, apart from what it costs to generate these comparisons.

I may have a similar sized home to my neighbors, but there are a different number of people living in the home, and different aged occupiers provide different uses of energy. Older people tend to keep their homes heated more than younger people who are more active and spend less time in their homes. Teenagers and those who regularly do sport, provide more dirty laundry than those who are older or more sedentary and consequently use more energy on laundry and showers. Someone who works at home uses more power than those whose home is empty most of the day.

And so on and so on. Comparisons between neighbors in similar homes makes very little sense. This is just expensive fluff.


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Posted by PA resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 9:51 am

What bragging rights? I use less energy but my utility bills goes higher and higher?

BTW, what a waste of resource to come up with such an app.


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Posted by Just-Say-No
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:01 am

The last project that the PAU signed up for--comparing you and 99 other folks like you--cost about $500K, half of which comes from the rate payers and the other half comes from the taxpayers. There is little evidence this $500K is worth the money.

Simple Apps are not that hard to develop, but it would be very nice if the Weekly were to take the numerous criticisms of their reporting to heart and ask the most obvious of questions: "how much does this cost?"

This whole approach of forcing people to compare themselves to their neighbors is beginning to take on a distinct smell of the techniques of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Makes on wonder if the Utility is not going to post our bills on line, and then ask the Neighborhood Associations (like PAN) to form neighborhood watch teams to force high utility users to "confess" to being wasteful, and profligate. Given the fusion of Marxist/Stalinist ideas in much of "conservationism" and "sustainability"--it would not be that much of a surprise to find small groups meeting for a "utility intervention" when neighbors have lights on after 9:00PM.

This is not the America that our parents and grandparents fought for when they signed up to fight WWII. How in the world could we have come this far in so short a time--to look like, and act like, the people we fought against just a few short decades ago?


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Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:19 am

Just-say-no, they ALREADY had developed a program to make people who didn't recycle enough ashamed, and had come up with ways to pressure them and eventually fine them (this included photographing their trash, and leaving red notices on the trash cans when people were not recycling). This received enough negative attention due to its Big Brotherish (and rather thuggish) nature to cause the proponents to back off.

The program comparing your energy use to your neighbors was part of the federal stimulus program. Wonder how many jobs were created by it, in comparison to its cost?


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Posted by John Galt
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:27 am

Just say NO! NO! NO!
Enough!


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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:54 am

Ever since the city hired a 'big boss' to run our utility lives, it seems that the big-boss has to dream up mandates to justify his existence. Enough already. The city loves to dream up 'programs like "Destination Palo Alto" (look, everyone, at our bad streets downtown) among other delights. This idea is beyond DUMB. Enough. When is the next election?


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Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:56 am

While Palo Altans are admittedly competitive, there must be better ways to compete and better things to spend time on. We all watch what we use and what we spend -- that's why I elect to keep my monthly bill lower by not opting on to the PA Green Program.

Too anal, too much money.


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Posted by Not Wasteful
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:57 am

I'm another in the "Why?" camp. The mailing I got a couple of years ago comparing my usage to others only served to make me angry. It compared my duplex to apartment dwellers (if you have only one exterior wall, of course your heating bill will be lower), and it compared my all-electric home to homes heated with gas! When I complained, they adjusted the comparison, but I still scored high - I suppose because I work at home and at the time was running a powerful computer system all day (saving on burning fuel from a daily 23 mile commute - but that apparently doesn't count). The fact that I went to the expense of replacing lights with CFL's, wear sweaters to keep the thermostat at 68, hang my clothes to dry, etc., etc., all got lost somehow. It seemed like a slap in the face for all the effort I made. I now have solar panels. Are those taken into account? If not, I should do really well in this "competition" regardless of how wasteful I could be if I wanted to. This is just plain ridiculous.


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Posted by Just-Say-No
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:19 am

To: "Give us a break"

> the already invented such a program ..

Thanks for the comment. I've lived here a long time, but didn't realize that "they" had done this sort of thing. I do remember that they hired a couple of people to ride around on bicycles at one point to cite homeowners for various problems--like weeds and overflowing garbage cans. Seems to me that they also used some sort of "water police" too, during one, or more, of the droughts that have befallen us, over the years.

Wonder if PG&E is treating its customers the same way as the politically correct Palo Alto social engineering City Government tries to us?


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Posted by Jim Mitchell
a resident of University South
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:24 am

I agree with many of the comments above.

As Mark Twain said: "Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.'"

We live in a condo and are very energy conscious, including buying into the "Green Power" surcharge, but every time I get the comparison of my energy to my "neighbors", it only makes me mad. It compares us with some other units in the condo which, for example, are completely unoccupied or rented and used less than half the time.

Of course, the !@#$% software doesn't know that or isn't savvy enough to throw out such outliers as unrealistic. I get mad, too, because it is another piece of junk mail coming to me that I just throw away. I wonder how much energy has been consumed preparing, printing, and mailing these things.

In general I am a fan of Palo Alto's utilities, but this program has, so far as I can tell, no upside. The claim that it has decreased electricity usage by 2.5% is both underwhelming and fatuous. How do we know it is this program? Other programs to make us aware of being better energy conservers and the increasing costs of energy could easily account for as much.

I urge the Palo Alto Utilities to stop this program. I certainly will not bother to download the mobile app and I will summarily throw all such future mailings in the recycling bin as soon as I can tear open the envelope and see what it is.


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Posted by It's a mad mad smad world
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

Mad?

Y'all need something to really get mad at!

Or take a chill pill. Comparisons are just that. One wonders how many of the 'mad' posters cite a personal responsibility mantra to their kids come grading period time.....


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Posted by emily
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

Does this mean we can finally stop getting all the wasteful mailings that come through each month? Even though I have requested to not receive a paper bill, I still receive these "energy comparison" along with other piles of junk.

Please stop sending me junk mail and wasting money and resources on these mailings!


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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:51 am

Marie is a registered user.

What a waste of money - especially when reduced usage just means higher per unit prices to cover fixed costs. They need to come up with better formulas to allocate fixed costs so that those of us with small homes and lots don't end up subsidizing businesses and large homes. I no longer have any incentive to use less energy or to recycle as the most of my utility bill is for per unit costs - which is going up astronomically.


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Posted by Unhappy Utility Customer
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:52 am

Folk, the PA Utility Department has to justify continually increasing your utility bills; and spending it on this kind of junk makes me puke!!


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Posted by Karen White
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 4, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I ordinarily wouldn't comment on staff activities of this kind -- but this is beyond the pale. Someone has way too much time on their hands. I hope we're not seeing rate increases to support this kind of "work."


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Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I'm glad the city is promoting this app. I don't think it cost the city much, but I don't have anything to back that up. We're talking about promoting a Facebook app. That shouldn't cost much money.

But more importantly, this might cause some people to reduce their energy consumption. I realize that paying more is already a powerful incentive, but this adds a social aspect to it. That's important to some people. Look at all the stupid things people put on their FB pages now. This is an opportunity for people to make themselves look better than others, more pious. I think it was the Daily Post this morning that compared this app to people who drive hybrids in order to brag about how much energy they're saving for the planet. This might do some good by appealing to our instinct to want to look better than other people. It's worth a try.


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Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 1:33 pm

We've had the City compare resident's energy usage at great expense for almost a year. Has it caused a significant increase in conservation that isn't lost in the many variables affecting usage? Of course not. Yet the Utility Dept. is committed to its program and would lose face if they stopped it. Egos are involved, not reduction of costs.

Only JT is marginally in favor of this new app, but his/her premise is it "might" cause people to reduce energy. Would this be more than the present costly effort? Most of us try to save in these times and reducing a utility bill is high on the list already.

Saying this is a competition is ludicrous - what are the rules of the game? When and how are the winners determined? What is the prize? Another feel good idea run amok.


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Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 2:00 pm

For anyone who does not wish to receive the mailings comparing energy use to one's neighbors' energy use, it's fairly easy to get off the list: simply send an e-mail, asking for your household to be removed from the program. I did, and have received no further mailings.

And, JT, what exactly is great about wanting to appear pious and superior to one's neighbors? Do we resort to just about any enticement when it comes to saving energy? Ridiculous.


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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 4, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Great. Save more, pay more.

You too can pry into your neighbors' lives. Did you shower today? I didn't. Shame on you. I may smell horrible but I'm holier than you are. MORONS.

What an idiotic waste of staff time and money.

How about working on cutting RATES??? How about a contest to see who can save the most money by NOT recycling.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: JT
1: speculation that it couldn't cost much: The cost is not in the Facebook app, but in the interface to the Utilities database. The City's IT was not designed for this, so I would guess that this was a non-trivial expense. (Cost is a routine justification for the City not making other info available).

2. "might cause some people to reduce their energy consumption": Probably not because of self-selection: People who would participate are probably already taking most/all reasonable measures and like the letters, this provides absolutely no information _how_ to improve. And as with the comparison letters, the notion of what is comparable is not even laughable.

3. As you note, this is a program for the vanity "environmentalists" who dominate Palo Alto -- they don't care about actually improving the situation (based on counterproductive measures that they advocate), but simply want to look good and/or feel good.

4. Palo Alto is a place where "conspicuous consumption" of "green" products and programs is regarded as pro-environment. Notice that Palo Alto is a first adopter of this program, rather than waiting to see if it actual is effective (including cost effective).


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Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Really? We can afford to spend money on this idiocy and yet we can't afford the animal shelter?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by It's a mad mad smad world
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm

1. "I would guess"

2. "Probably not"

3. specious claim with no substantiation

4. "is regarded" (by 'others', as in 'some say')

Nice hat trick of bold, substantiated statements.


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Posted by Yuck!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

These reports are creepy. Mine is wrong because the sq footage is wrong, but I'm urged to "update" my info so the Utility can evaluate me. Really? Is that enough? So the Utility provider is morphing into a monitor and where will that end? To really figure out energy comparisons, the Utility co. needs lots and lots of data -- how many people, anyone sick, do you travel often, do you have a business at home, on and on. And how come me in a small home gets dinged but the big home gets praise all because of sq. footage? Hmmmm, what's wrong with the trade off I live in smaller house and keep it warmer? Who's business is that but my own? The Utility co. wants me to socialize with others by keeping tabs on all that! Yuck!


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Posted by Jo Shmoe
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm

In the comparison I currently get they don't take into account the number of people living in your house. My family of 5 is compared to the single guy next door that is almost never home. Who do you think scores better ;) The simplified comparison system is useless and adding a social network aspect to it is ridiculous and a waste of time, money and effort.


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Posted by not a sheep
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 4, 2012 at 5:59 pm

This has a ring to it like the old Chinese communes. They hung lists of the people in the town with the "best" at the top of the list and the worst at the bottom. This was very competitive to get one to behave as the communist hierarchy wanted them to, and to shame those at the bottom. Do we have a "nanny state?" You better believe it.


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Posted by Keep em busy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 6:04 pm

First a pingpong competition, now this. Has the city administration decided that the way to reach people is to get them to compete against one another?
Competition as a way to create friendliness? Give me a break. Competition is overstressing us and our kids and they want even more?
Maybe it is a good way to keep the peons occupied so they wont notice the corruption at the top.


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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Just don't sign up for the app!

Unfortunately, we the rate payers are paying for the staff and other costs for the utilities to do this. The utility rates keep going up, and this is contributing to the rate increases.

When was the last time the city council took a look at the utility department staffing, and reducing the costs associated the extraneous staff.


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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 4, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Write to the city council and complain about misplaced priorities and waste. Tell them you won't approve the bond measures until this lunacy stops.

Tell them whether you showered, tell them how many times you flushed, tell them you're going to stop recycling until this nonsense stops...

Tell them you're not a prowler, you're just monitoring your neighbors.


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Posted by More Efficient Green
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 5, 2012 at 12:50 am

I'd like to comment on the Green Energy surcharge that the utility offers. I work in renewable energy and am a littleput off by the conduct of the utility.

The utility offers 100 percent green energy for a higher per kwh rate than the regular (70 percent green) PA energy mix. This is essentially achieved by purchasing renewable energy credits, or the right to the green attributes, of power from a distant wind farm or hydro plant. The actual power consumed comes from the grid and whichever power plant is nearest, which is likely gas fired, but the principle is still sound. The renewable power credits purchased offsets dirty generation and makes the world greener.

My problem is that the value of renewable energy credits (RECs) on the open market is far below what the utility appears to be charging. RECs currently trade for under a dollar per megawatt hour, which means the cost of closing the 30 percent green gap in a PA residents annual usage should be around 3-4 dollars at most.

I don't think the utility is taking an overt markup on peoples good intentions, but I think they likely negotiated a long term rec purchase at a bad price and are passing this expense on to the good intentioned rate payers who sign up for the green program. Such ratepayers would be better off purchasing a few RECs on the market, and could be 100 percent renewable without the utility inefficiency inflating the cost.

Worst of all, the utility users tax, which is assessed on total utility bill, flows right into the general fund which means it pays for overpaid city workers and their ever increasing pensions and benefits, so a portion of the green adder is flowing directly into the inefficient city government coffers.

Even As an ardent support of renewable and domestic generation, I have to encourage my fellow palo altars to avoid taking the green adder offered by the utility due to the waste involved.


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Posted by guest
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 5, 2012 at 7:31 am

What conservation shows me is that most of my utilities bill comes not from consuming (gas/electricity/water) but from supporting the bloated CPAU system.

PA needs a purge.


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Posted by Byron Street
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm

We clearly have a Utilities Department with too much funding and too much time on their hands. They engage in a hobby like connecting Facebook to energy usage, and we pay the bill for it. They probably think that they are part of the start-up culture that made Silicon Valley great; the reality is that these idiots wouldn't last a month in the private sector.


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Posted by Debra Katz
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm

As Utilities Communications Manager, I wanted to make a couple of quick points relative to the comments above:

1) The Opower-Facebook App is a project we participated in precisely because it involved virtually no expense and minimal staff time, yet offered a fun new way for Palo Altans WHO CHOOSE TO PARTICIPATE to improve efficiency.

2)As to the Home Energy Reports, which are mailed to customers directly, these are also an optional service and anyone who objects to receiving them can simply call (650) 329-2241 and have their names removed from the list.

3)Concern was expressed about the City "spying" on what residents do inside their homes. Quite the opposite is the case. Indeed, staff cannot and does not know details "inside" people's homes such as number of people, exact square footage, usage of TV or showers or anything else. That is why, to make your Home Energy Report more accurate and relevant, we encourage users to go to the website (listed on EVERY report)and update their specific household information.

I am always interested in feedback on Utilities programs and services. Anyone with constructive comments or suggestions is welcome to email me directly anytime: debra.katz@cityofpaloalto.org


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 7, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Debra,

Green gigabytes of gratitude for the reality check!


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Posted by Privacy-Is-A-Good-Thing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 8, 2012 at 10:21 am

Ms. Katz:
Thanks for your comments. However, there are many details that you have not provided that ratepays, such as myself, would be interested in knowing—

You say: "1) The Opower-Facebook App is a project we participated in precisely because it involved virtually no expense and minimal staff time, yet offered a fun new way for Palo Altans WHO CHOOSE TO PARTICIPATE to improve efficiency."

So .. just how much did this App cost in terms of "green dollars" and Staff time? In the private sector, engagement in projects like this would cause some sort of a project plan to be generated by the project/program manager. Such plans would identify all of the internal costs, and the external benefits—be those increased benefits be increased revenues, or "saving" to the company, or the customers. Did the PAU generate such a plan, prior to becoming involved in this project?

Ms. Katz, you say that: "2)As to the Home Energy Reports, which are mailed to customers directly, these are also an optional service and anyone who objects to receiving them can simply call (650) 329-2241 and have their names removed from the list." While this is true, how is it responsive to the thrust of the comments about cost/benefit to the ratepayers/customers of the PAU? Can you speak to just why the ratepayers/taxpayers should have shelled out $500K for this information? And please also speak to the general contention that the less energy people use the more they will have to pay in successive years.

Ms. Katz, you say that: "3)Concern was expressed about the City "spying" on what residents do inside their homes. Quite the opposite is the case. Indeed, staff cannot and does not know details "inside" people's homes such as number of people, exact square footage, usage of TV or showers or anything else. That is why, to make your Home Energy Report more accurate and relevant, we encourage users to go to the website (listed on EVERY report)and update their specific household information." Could you please bolster these comments by citing the City Ordinances that prevent Staff from know the details of the "inside" of people's homes? Could you also provide direct evidence that the PAU knows where this information goes and who is handling it, once it is turned over to the 3rd parties that are developing the software for these reports? Large data breaches happen almost every week these days. Does the PAU have any data protection mechanisms in place, such as encrypting all user data—to insure that any/all information about our individual home use can not be stolen and utilized against us by :cyber criminals?

Ms. Katz, hopefully you will answer these questions, and perhaps you might go so far as to post all of the internal documents about these energy "savings" programs involving customer data on the PAU web site.


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Posted by concernedpa
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 8, 2012 at 7:35 pm

@Ms. Katz according to your own comment #3 --3)Concern was expressed about the City "spying" on what residents do inside their homes. Quite the opposite is the case. Indeed, staff cannot and does not know details "inside" people's homes such as number of people, exact square footage, usage of TV or showers or anything else. That is why, to make your Home Energy Report more accurate and relevant, we encourage users to go to the website (listed on EVERY report)and update their specific household information. --

You admit that Utilities does need specific private info in order to be accurate. Clearly sq. footage is not enough. You will need daily info -- how many household members? anyone sick? visitors? travel? While you feel that the Utility can't "spy" on customers, you urge your customers to provide this info and in effect allow the Utilities to indeed "spy"!

Our Utility does not trust us to be good enough conservationists. Sad really. And getting creepy.


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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Would someone refresh my memory. FOR WHAT IS THE UTILITY TAX USED? IS THERE A 'SUNSET' ON THE UTILITY TAX? WHY do residents' water usage suddenly spike when they are away or know there is a drop is usage - a rainy month? WHY are we overloaded with repetitive information, classy and colorful brochures, commandments and prohibitions, and 'nanny state' information? MONTH AFTER MONTH?? WHAT DOES ALL THIS COST? Is the Utility Advisory Commission 'out to lunch? Is CITY HALL out to lunch - is it every other Friday--- everyday?


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Posted by Voter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 9, 2012 at 10:53 am

The utility users tax goes right to the general fund and is primarily used to pay for city staff salaries, pensions, and benefits.

The tax should be removed immediately as it is a conflict of ratepayer interests -- the city government has all incentive to raise our utility rates with no corresponding increase in value delivered (a violation of the basic tenet of ratepayer advocacy).

The tax should be repealed immediately. If the public supports increasing the general fund, they should be allowed to vote on a new tax to replace the utility users tax once it's gone.

The last thing the city and the unions want is for the people to get a say. Look how vehemently the fire union fought to keep Measure D off of the ballot.


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Posted by Repeal-The-UUT
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 9, 2012 at 11:16 am

> The utility users tax goes right to the general fund and is
> primarily used to pay for city staff salaries, pensions, and
> benefits.

While true, the UUT was originally intended to pay the yearly lease fees for the Cubberley Center. The City has rented out this facility, thereby generating revenue which also goes into the General Fund, which is used to pay the lease fees. The UUT currently brings in over $11M, which easily covers the difference between the generated revenue, and the lease fees. The rest is used for no particular purpose other than to pay salaries.


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