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Editorial: How Private Should Utility Bills Be?

March 08, 2009
March/April 2009
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The cover of this issue depicts extraordinarily useful information: the homes whose attics are inadequately insulated. British residents can go onto the Web and find their homes—or their neighbors’ homes—to determine their thermal efficiency.

This aerial photo, along with the widely available photos in Google Earth and other services, illustrates the rapidly changing definitions of privacy. Thirty years ago, various groups in the United States used high-flying planes to take infrared photos like this one for the same purpose. But those programs were scotched by people outraged by the invasion of privacy. Now, in the 21st century, we hardly complain when views of our backyards and street-fronts are visible on the Worldwide Web.

Meanwhile, another incident reminded us of the value of public disclosure of efficiency information. The city of Austin, Texas, released the names of the ten largest residential water consumers. The home of bicycle racer Lance Armstrong topped the list. Armstrong conceded that he had not known about his high consumption, but you can be sure that he has already taken measures to ensure that it won’t happen again because that kind of publicity was not welcome.

Perhaps it is time to consider a similar disclosure for energy consumption. Global climate change has taught us that my carbon footprint affects the well-being of my neighbors, so perhaps my neighbors have a right to know how much energy I consume. Of course there’s a sensationalist aspect to knowing the ten largest energy users in a community but other, more positive, forms of disclosure could prove more broadly useful than a “name and shame” strategy.

The first instance occurs when a house is offered for sale. Prospective buyers should have access to utility bills. To be sure, a home’s energy consumption is affected by its occupants but it’s harder to disguise a guzzler if the utility bills are available.  And there is no faster way for an “efficiency premium” to appear in the housing market than through automatic disclosure of utility bills. Several regions are already contemplating enacting this requirement.

The second instance occurs when consumers try to understand their own utility bills. Most utilities now offer a comparison of this month’s use to last year’s use. That’s a valuable piece of information but probably less influential than knowing how your consumption compares to your neighbors’. How would you feel if you discovered that your home consumed 50% more than the average of homes on your street? Your block? Your zip code? Sociologists have long known the influence of peer pressure, yet this has not been harnessed to save energy. Why? One reason is our possibly outdated concepts of privacy enshrined in regulations established by public utility commissions. Another reason is the sadly antiquated software running most utilities’ billing computers; the utilities can’t easily extract the data to make these comparisons. Nevertheless, a few utilities are already providing these sorts of comparisons.

Leaders in climate policy are beginning to recognize that strictly technical and economic measures will be insufficient to achieve large reductions in energy use and carbon emissions. We need complementary policies to stimulate positive behavior and attitudes. More public disclosure of energy consumption information is one strategy to achieve that goal.

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