Saving Energy? There’s an App for That!

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Encouraging energy conservation behaviors can be a tough sell.  Turn off the lights.  Turn off your computers.  Turn down your thermostat.  There are many actions one could take and sometimes they feel so small that it’s hard to remember that they matter.

There’s an app for that.

The Lose-A-Watt app is a FUN way to take actions, see the actions that other people are taking, and see the impact that those actions make. The app blends gamification with sustainable behaviors to help users save energy and make a difference. It was created by a company called JouleBug, and gives users a quick and easy way to play, save, and share. Other communities across the U.S. use the JouleBug app to compete in monthly ecochallenges, too.

Now, each month, you can participate in a 7-day Fort Collins Community Challenge that will focus solely on our community energy savings and impact.  Each time you turn off the light, take the bus, or turn off the faucet, you can ’buzz’ that action, post photos, and share comments. It’s a great way to share and save while we create community around the sustainable actions that add up.  Plus, we’ll be awarding the top three winners with an LED lightbulb each month.

This is exciting because we can grasp the impact the players have in our community.  My hope is that these challenges inspire more and more community members to play and that they then “claim their community” and set up their own challenges with co-workers, friends, and family.

Find out more on lose-a-watt.com, and by downloading the Lose-A-Watt app.

COLORADOAN: Want points for being green? There’s an app for that.

This article was originally published in The Coloradoan and was written by Jacy Marmaduke. You can find the entire article and video online here.

As it turns out, being kinda broke is a big-time advantage when you’re fighting for your life in a smartphone app-based sustainability competition.

Fighting for points, I mean. Same difference.

The app is called Lose-A-Watt, and it might prove Fort Collins’ secret weapon as the city competes with 49 others for the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize. The jackpot will go to the city that makes the biggest cuts in residential, municipal and educational electricity and natural gas use during 2015 and 2016, compared to 2013-2014 levels.

Public engagement is a factor, too, and if the city lands the prize, the money will go toward community energy efficiency measures.

Fort Collins spent $15,000 on the app as part of its Lose-A-Watt campaign, and a group of Colorado State University students tested it out earlier this year. They’re trying to use the app to find out whether “gamifying” sustainable habits can make them more popular.

I was dying to try it out myself, so I put on my most ferocious game face and managed to snag a spot in the December 2015 EcoChallenge (read: downloaded the free app, tapped the “challenge” icon and hit “join”).

The app is really simple: Scroll through 120-some sustainable actions, called “pins,” and “buzz,” or tap, a pin every time you do the thing. Some of the pins are easy-peasy – buzz the “flip off” pin for a few points every time you switch off lights when you leave a room; buzz “brush with greatness” every time you turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth; buzz “blazing saddle shoes” when you decide to walk to your destination instead of driving.

Some of them call for a little more effort – start your own compost pile, buy an Energy Star-qualified home appliance, set up a gray water system at your house so the excess water from your washing machine can hydrate your lawn.

You get more points for typing a caption to your buzz and adding a photo, and the app has a social-network-y vibe in that every user has a profile and you can see other people’s pins in the “activity” section.

I spend enough time staring at screens as it is, so I got no thrill from whipping out my iPhone every time I left my cat in the dark, turned off my computer at the end of the workday or brought my lunch to the office.

It was cool, though, to watch myself rack up points for habits I’ve adopted from convenience or necessity. Like I said, my wallet was having a skinny week while I competed in the challenge, so brown-bagging it, keeping the lights off and driving feather-foot to save on gas earned me points on the app and made my checking account happy.

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I tried out a few new habits, too. I’d never thought to lower my thermostat when I left the house, and attempting to cap my showers at five minutes helped me get ready faster in the morning and save water.

 And the app served as a pesky reminder to do things I know I should do, but often don’t: bringing my own mug to the coffee shop and reusable bags to the grocery store, using rags instead of paper towels, packing reusable silverware with my lunch.

“It plants a seed in your mind,” said Jennifer Solomon, the CSU professor whose environmental communications class test-drove the app. “Every time I leave the room, I need to turn off the lights. Every time I brush my teeth, I need to shut off the water. If I have a choice between driving and walking, I should walk. We’re curious to see how long that seed stays, and does it grow?”

The answer to that question remains in the dark, but Solomon surveyed each of her students at the end of the semester about how they used the app and whether any new habits stuck.

One clear consensus among the students: Competing with people they knew drove them to buzz more.

“I was kind of surprised by the waves of competitiveness you would get,” said Caitlyn Thomas, a CSU senior. “At first you’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m not really into it,’ and then you’d see everybody else getting into it and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get as many points as possible!’ ”

“I felt pretty competitive the whole time,” chimed in junior Julia Sullivan, who won the challenge with more than 8,000 points. “But maybe that’s just me.”

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None of the six students I interviewed kept using the app after the 10-day challenge ended – not even Julia, who tallied 13 times more points than I did. That’s not necessarily a bad omen for the app’s efficacy, though. It all depends on whether constant, short-term use was enough to create long-term habits.

“Even with games like FarmVille or Bejeweled, you don’t play those for years or even months,” sophomore Cierra Carrigan said. “You play them for a couple weeks while all your friends are doing it, and then you stop. So I think it’s really important that when they develop games like this, they make them based on forming habits instead of keeping people playing them for as long as possible.”

Michelle Finchum, who works in Fort Collins Utilities’ community engagement division, said the CSU students’ feedback has changed the city’s plans for using the app. Instead of marketing the app to the city as a whole like they were initially planning, city staff is going to approach specific businesses or other groups and set up challenges for them so people can compete against familiar faces.

They’ll monitor the app’s success during the coming months to see if it’s worth a spot in the city’s 2017-2018 budget. The fee allows the city to tailor the free app to Fort Collins and create communities and challenges within it.

And now for the all-important question: How’d I do?

In five days, I buzzed 30 times, earned 614 points and saved 61 pounds of carbon dioxide and 103 gallons of water. The app tells me that’s equivalent to baking 53 frozen pizzas and filling a bathtub twice.

I got 12th place out 40 people who buzzed. I’m not sure if they make 12th-place medals, but if they do, I hope mine is shaped like a frozen pizza.

Or a bathtub. I’m not picky.

Reporter Jacy Marmaduke covers environment and breaking news for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter at @jacymarmaduke.

Deciphering the GUEP Dashboard

Update March 2016: You may have noticed that our rankings have been fluctuating - we went from being ranked #13 to #10 in the space of a month! The reason for this is that there are communities participating in the GUEP that are still submitting or correcting data, so our ranking is very dynamic - it can easily change from week to week and could change based on incoming data from Georgetown University. Rankings are not completely finalized until early 2017.

The overall goal of the Lose-A-Watt Energy Prize is to reduce energy usage in the Fort Collins community over the course of two years. To establish a baseline, the competition uses energy use data from 2013 and 2014, and competition years are 2015 and 2016. The 48 competing communities are challenged to reduce their residential and municipal energy usage, and the top 10 communities are entered in the semi-finals, where more qualitative metrics are applied to determine the winner of the $5 million prize.

Lose-A-Watt General

The dashboard rankings are based on the Georgetown Energy Prize’s “Overall Energy Score,” which calculates each community’s reduction in overall energy use in 2015, compared with the same period in 2013 and 2014, and adjusts it for population, weather, and ‘site and source energy.’ Decreased energy use appears as a negative number, while increased energy use appears as a positive number. How the score is calculated:

  1. What’s measured and what’s not: The prize only measures municipal and residential energy use. Transportation is not included. Commercial building energy usage also doesn’t count for the prize. However, any energy used by municipal-owned buildings, parks, infrastructure (such as streetlights and parking garages) goes into the overall energy usage numbers. This also includes K-12 schools within city limits, so part of the overall campaign is to engage students and teachers in energy saving tactics for school and home.
  2. Population and Weather Normalization: To provide fair competition among communities, Georgetown takes the raw data reported by municipalities and normalizes them for number of residents and weather. GUEP calculates energy use per household based on the number of residential utility bills issued, to take population fluctuations into account. Weather normalized energy is the energy a building would have used under average conditions, which ensures that cities subjected to hotter-than-average summers, or colder-than-average winters, aren’t put at a disadvantage.
  3. Site Energy and Source Energy: Source energy is a calculation of energy consumption based on impact of the production, transportation, and delivery of the energy source. This allows Georgetown to calculate the overall impact on natural resources required to power a building and provides a full picture of energy efficiency. For example, a building heated exclusively by a wood stove and fireplaces may have a vey low natural gas bill, and wood is cheap, resulting in low site energy. Source energy takes into account overall impact of the building’s heat source. GUEP uses source energy to calculate dashboard numbers because it is considered the best way to assess all impacts of energy consumption. Raw site energy data (natural gas and electric bills) are reported to Georgetown, where the overall energy score is calculated taking source energy into account.

The dashboard shows all 58 communities, the amount of energy saved, the amount of CO2 offset over the first two quarters of 2015, and other relevant information. Fort Collins is ranked 12th out of 58, and we need your help to make it to the top 10 in 2016, so help us today, and Lose-A-Watt!