Gradually Greening: Empowerment through Laziness

This article was written by Karl Schroeder in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long WorldChanging Canada editorial retrospective, celebrating two years of WorldChanging Canada.6236_largearticlephoto.jpg

There is a secret to changing your behaviour. The trick is not to trust your own willpower. Instead, arrange conditions outside yourself such that the desired new behaviour is always your laziest option.

Case in point: Canadian company Blue Line Innovations' PowerCost Monitor. This is a dead-simple little device that looks like a desktop clock. All it does is tell you the time, the temperature—and how much electricity the building you're in is using right now, in dollars and cents.

This device asks no commitment from you; it doesn't require that you adopt a creed, renounce your friends or give up eating meat. It just gently tells you the actual cost of your behaviours. If you left a lamp on in the bedroom, you'll be able to see the effect. More subtly, if you have a lot of energy vampires plugged into your power outlets—things like cell phone chargers and other transformers—the monitor will show you what they're really doing to your electricity consumption. Just having the monitor there should cause your behaviours to change, reducing your power consumption. That's the theory, anyway.

I decided to test that theory by purchasing a PowerCost Monitor and trying it out.

I bought the monitor from Don't worry if you're outside Canada, Blue Line will be happy to take your money and ship the unit anywhere in North America. It was simple to order on-line, and cost me about $180 once you factor in taxes and shipping charges. Blue Line shipped it by courier, which meant I had to make an extra trip to pick it up, but that was a small inconvenience.

The PowerCost Monitor has two main pieces: a "sensor unit" which you strap to the outside of your house's power meter, and a display unit that you keep inside. The display unit is about four by six inches and can be hung on a wall or left on the mantlepiece (which is what I've done). Helpfully, the Monitor package ships with a complete set of batteries for both units, plus a very helpful and clear instructional video (on CD) so you can be up and running within minutes of opening the box.

Well—you might. It took me a few days to get the thing to work. The sensor unit has a little arm that sticks out over the face of your power meter. It reads the slowly-rotating disk of mechanical meters, or interfaces through an optical port to digital units. The problem (for the mechanical version, at least) is that the optical sensor on the little arm has to be aligned perfectly to bounce its light off the thin edge of the turning disk. It took me a few tries to get this right, and part of the problem was that I had trouble interpreting the information coming in to the display unit.

The idea here is that the display unit tells you in dollars and cents what your power consumption is. When I synched the units the first time, I got a reading of $0.04/hour, which seemed awfully low to me. (Blue Line's promotional photos show a PowerCost unit registering $0.63/hour.) What's more, the manual says that $0.04 is the minimum that the monitor is capable of registering.

I walked around the house turning on lights, but of course I've invested in compact-fluorescents in recent years, so that didn't make much difference. There seemed to be a spike when the furnace came on, but it was hard to tell because there's at least a half-minute time lag between any changes in consumption rate, and those changes showing up on the monitor. Also, there seemed to be unexplained spikes and occasional monitor failures when it read only $--- instead of a number.

Standing on a chair next to the meter and painstakingly adjusting the level of the sensor arm finally made the difference--as did actually studying my power bill and figuring out what my average consumption should really look like. Doing this revealed that $0.04/hour wasn't out of line with my house's actual draw, but with the sensor properly adjusted it quickly began to show an average of $0.05-$0.06/hour. In the evenings, when we're doing laundry with the TV on and the computer is awake, it edges up to $0.12/hour. I now know that my furnace fan uses $0.02-$0.03 per hour to run, and my hair dryer, $0.09/hour.

In Toronto we have two-tier power billing: above a certain threshold of power use per month, your hourly rate increases. The PowerCost Monitor accommodates such billing practices, which actually gives me a specific target to shoot for: keep consumption below the threshold. That should be fairly easy during the winter, when the threshold is higher; I'm looking forward to seeing if it's possible with the summer rate.

On the whole my experience has been positive, but I can make two observations based on my experience so far. First, the Monitor's not really a great tool for moment-by-moment monitoring of your household. There's the time lag, plus the fact people who are power-conscious already will generally be aware of their power vampires (things like incandescent bulbs). The monitor will help you identify outrageous drains (basement freezers come to mind) and let you know what they cost in you per month in actual dollars and cents, but an already-efficient household may find it hard to shave much off what's already been done by eg. replacing your bulbs. The monitor is likely to be more useful for me as a tool for gradually changing your consumption habits, because it will allow you to compare subtle changes over long periods of time. (I'll report back in six months and hopefully this time next year on my own experience.)

Secondly, my household is already operating close to the lower limit of the monitor's sensitivity. Small changes in our power use aren't as visible to us as they would be to someone living in, say, a monster house. If you've got a big house with a freezer in the basement, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, computers and other appliances, baseboard heaters and lots of incandescents or (God forbid) 300-watt halogen floor lamps, then any changes you make are going to show up dramatically on this unit--but as a habitual overconsumer, you're probably less likely to care enough to invest in a monitor.

On the other hand, the unit might prove eye-opening to over-consumers precisely because it does register the problem in dollars and cents. It seems a no-brainer that all new houses should come equipped with a monitor like this one, as a way of establishing good power-consumption habits right from the day that people move in.

Which brings me back to the notion of empowerment through laziness. It's my personal opinion that environmentalism has never really gotten traction with most people because it styled itself as a creed: a philosophy and associated lifestyle that you had to adopt. It's like converting to a religion; recent studies in how religions work (socially) indicate that the successful ones demand some sort of adherence price be paid by converts, whether that be shaving your head, renouncing certain foods or whatever. A steep price presupposes some level of commitment on the part of your converts. The downside is that while you keep the riffraff out, you guarantee that not everybody will want to convert. I can't tell you whether hard-core environmentalism actually adopted this strategy, or whether public perception was that as a distinct creed, environmentalism must naturally have such commitment cost. The net result is the same: the riffraff were kept out.

At this point, we want the riffraff. Hell, we want everybody we can get. We don't care whether people believe in some environmental ethos—all we care about is changing their behaviours.

Social and cultural revolutions are hard. In fact, this one is almost impossible within the critical timeframe of the current climate-change crisis. We just don't have time to foment a social revolution. Luckily, we don't need such a sea change. And when you realize that you can ignore the hard stuff—changing people's minds—in favour of just tweaking their behaviours, then suddenly the future doesn't look so bleak.

Imagine if all residential power meters came with an in-house monitor that told you the dollars and cents you're using. Imagine a mileage-cost meter for your car that works the same way. And one for your water. You don't have to convert people to make them environmentalists; all you have to do is make the previously unclear visible, and make the right behaviour into the laziest behaviour.

Great social revolutions may be started by the hard work of the few; but they're completed by leveraging the self-interest of the many.

Gradually Greening: Empowerment through Laziness by Karl Schroeder is part of our month long retrospective celebrating the second anniversary of WorldChanging Canada on October 31. For the month of November, we'll celebrate two years of bright green Canadian ideas, models, and solutions.

For more of Karl Schroeder's Gradually Greening columns, see:

Gradually Greening: Test-Driving Zipcar
by Karl Schroeder

Gradually Greening: Neutralizing my Car
by Karl Schroeder

For a recent piece on WorldChanging about Smart Metering and behaviour change, see:

Old homes get smart
by Adam Stein