News

How does your energy-use compare to neighbors?

New Palo Alto program ranks home energy consumption with neighborhood averages

The Home Energy Report, a new service from City of Palo Alto Utilities, ranks residents' home-energy usage against their neighbors.

The city hopes it will encourage people to be aware of their energy consumption and make their homes more efficient.

The double-sided report compares the account-holder's gas and electric energy consumption to usage at 99 nearby homes of similar size. It ranks the account holder's energy efficiency using a scale of one to 100 (one being the most efficient), and suggests ways utility-users can improve their performance.

"A lot of people don't know how their energy use compares to their neighbors. Once you have that information, then you can decide whether or not you want to do something about it," Joyce Kinnear, marketing manager at Palo Alto Utilities, said.

Approved by the City Council in May and financed by stimulus funds, the personalized Home Energy Report will be distributed to around 20,000 participating account holders, who will receive it with their bill every two months. Such reports, offered by 27 utilities across the country, compare properties' metered energy use based on approximate square footage according to county records and the kind of heating used, if that information is available.

Some residents expressed doubts about the way the houses are compared.

"I don't see how one house can accurately be compared to another. There are so many lifestyle differences," Walter Wallis of Midtown said.

But Kinnear said that showing account holders the way their lifestyle changes their consumption is exactly the point.

"A lot of energy use is based on lifestyle. I may have two people in my home ... but use more energy than a family of five," she said.

If residents feel their report is inaccurate they can modify their profile. Home square-footage figures come from the county and account holders can correct their square footage or add more information about the household on the utilities website. They can also opt to receive the report through e-mail.

Not all residents were pleased to see the report, and eleven have opted out, Kinnear said. Those who complained included people who cited illness or old age getting in the way of becoming more efficient, people who felt it judgmental or invasive, and someone who thought wind and solar energy were "just a bunch of hype."

In Old Palo Alto, a neighborhood home to both drafty older houses and newer residences designed with green in mind, there was considerable variety. Nancy Wu's report shows her household has a smaller footprint. She credits putting limits on heating and installing a 96 percent-efficient thermostat with reducing her energy consumption.

"It tells me that a lot of the modifications we've made in the past couple years have paid off," Wu said.

Some residents were delighted to find that they weren't poorly ranked, including a resident in the neighborhood who sometimes works from home, Harriet Chessman.

"I thought I was doing much worse," she said.

The report encouraged her to consider more efficient appliances.

"I definitely felt it to be a good motivating tool. It's one more nudge in the right direction," Chessman added.

Even those on the other end of the spectrum thought the report encouraged them to think about conserving energy.

"I didn't take in the report negatively," Bob Ryan said. "I knew that we had a high bill, and we've been thinking about it.

"It could even stimulate some competitive juices," he said.

Old Palo Alto resident William Bechtold, who has five refrigerators and received a less-than-efficient rating, said the rating gave him a chance to focus on reducing his energy costs.

His report said that he could save several thousand dollars if he reduced his consumption to that of the average among his neighbors.

"It was interesting to read, and you don't necessarily think about your energy use every day. Now I am motivated to go to Ace Hardware and get a power meter" to see how many much electricity each appliance requires, Bechtold said.

Some account-holders said the program was unlikely to change their ways.

"It's a valuable tool and may be a wake-up call for people who haven't given it much thought," Larry Garlic said.

He explained that his house was built fairly recently and is designed to be more green than some old houses. That doesn't mean he won't consider more ways to reduce his use.

Sue Kemp, an Old Palo Alto resident, said that she had followed the action steps in her report, but had already updated her furnace to a more efficient model and tries to limit her use.

"I think I've done most of what I can do."

The report encouraged at least one frank talk around the dinner table, according to Old Palo Alto resident Debbie Crouch.

"Our teenagers took us to task on our energy use, and we took them to task on theirs," Crouch said.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Tea Party
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2010 at 10:06 am

More information is always useful.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Appreciative
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2010 at 10:53 am

This was a great idea! Thank you for the report. It's hanging on the refrigerator as a daily reminder that we are over indulging. Now we need an action plan. Someone should follow up with home audit services to identify specific ways for a given household to improve. The report is a good wake up call, but to take action we need to understand our usage in more detail.


Like this comment
Posted by Unhappy neighbor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2010 at 11:02 am

We feel this is the beginning of the "nanny state". For health reasons our home has to be warmer, and I resent having to feel guilty about it. It is none of the city's business how much energy we use. Is the next step a few years down the road to cut off our energy after reaching a certain point of usage?


Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 11:06 am

@Appreciative. The organization Acterra has a program called Green at Home that will come out and do an energy audit. See the link:

Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Peter K. Mueller
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

This news item is very interesting. How do I get my report? And what is the follow up to assist home dwellers to improve and reduce their own costs of energy utilization? are two questions the next news report on this topic should address.


Like this comment
Posted by Jared Bernstein
a resident of University South
on Dec 10, 2010 at 11:15 am

To the Unhappy neighbor: You know that you need it warm, and god knows, so it'll be OK.

The article mentions that one can see the SqFt of the dwelling on the PA util website. I did not find it easily.

However, are we compared to other houses of the same size, or is it a comparison to the nearest 99 houses using an energy/sqft ratio?


Like this comment
Posted by Insulted
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2010 at 11:40 am

I was incensed to get my report, and requested to be taken off the program. The reports showed that our consumption is more than 100% higher than our "nearest neighbors". Apparently the report didn't take into account that my house is all electric - no gas. When I wrote in to complain about that, the report was adjusted, but I still come out higher. Since we hang our clothes to dry, only have the heaters on when we're home and awake, keep the temperature low enough we need to wear sweaters, don't heat the bedrooms, use CFLs, and use no cooling devices in summer, I can only assume that our electric usage is due to "lifestyle choices".

These choices include - telecommuting (I'm home all day running a relatively powerful computer), using an electric bike for short trips, and a lot of cooking from scratch - I bake my own bread, for example. So my energy usage is offset by not using my car so much, but that's not reflected in the report. Nor does the report reflect the number of people living in the house. I'm glad the program seems to be causing some people to wake up, but it's like a slap in the face to someone like me who has been conscientious about how I use energy.


Like this comment
Posted by Big Brother is Watching Your Garbage
a resident of Monroe Park
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Why should we assume that comparing our energy usage to our neighbors in similar-size homes is meaningful? The automatic response is that if we are using more than our neighbors it's bad, but what if one's neighbors use way too much energy in general, and you compare with them? You can feel sanctimonious, but still be using a lot of energy. What if they use very little, and your use is simply average, but looks like too much comparatively? Then you can feel bad, and try to rein things in.

One thing of which we can be certain: As we conserve and are exhorted to conserve even further, our energy and water rates will keep increasing, as Palo Alto Utilities will not be making enough money if we keep cutting back on our usage. So conserve, don't conserve, feel guilty or don't, and the result will be the same.

As long as the utilities are working at cross purposes, wanting more revenue or at least the same level of revenue as usual but less energy and water use, we will see this kind of silliness. As I generate less and less garbage, I get to pay more and more for garbage service As I use less energy and water, my rates continue to go up astronomically. The only real incentive to conserve, which would be making it pay for people who do, is not working anymore, so we resort to guilt trips. I don't think this is anywhere near as powerful as rewarding those who conserve and are conscientious with lower prices.


Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

How much did these reports cost to prepare and mail?
Was that energy-efficient?


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Posted by M Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Even though I scored very low on energy use, my reaction to this slick mailer was disgust. How much did the city spend to prepare and send this? I immediately added this to my recycling bin with the rest of the junk mail.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Thanks for this service. My husband and I were shocked at our ranking and plan on doing something soon to get to the bottom of this. We want to lower our footprint and were not aware at all of how we stacked up. We recently did a whole house remodel (well almost) and had energy-saving windows put in everywhere. We thought that we were likely to be low energy users but we were wrong. Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to change!


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Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:15 pm

You can opt out by calling the City of Palo Alto Utilities at (650) 329-2161.
They will ask for your utility account number and the reason why you object.


Like this comment
Posted by Annette Puskarich
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2010 at 12:50 pm

For those interested in metering individual electric appliances/gadgets/equipment, both the PA and County libraries offer watt meters to borrow, free. They meter power usage and calculate costs to operate.

Kill A Watt EZ power meter

County Library (Los Altos is closest)
Web Link

PA Library
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Sonny
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 10, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Soon they'll be monitoring your garbage and recycling. Oh, wait they tried that already. Why does such a liberal city have such a heavy handed government? It doesn't make sense.


Like this comment
Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Since the city does not want to be friendly to new business and seems to not care that many are leaving, we are using utility revenue more and more as a cash cow. I agree with the comment that this efficiency thrust seems to be at cross purposes. I remember when we were all practically forced to cut our water consumption, for example and then were told that rates had to go up because water revenue wasn't enough to pay the bills.

We have 7 people living in our house while our three nearest neighbors have 1 each. I felt bad for a few minutes after reading the comparison but decided it was more or less meaningless. But, if it provided a job to a couple of people, I guess it's not all bad.


Like this comment
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm

The energy neighborhood comparison reports do not take into consideration that most people are working away from home and would turn down their heat and turn off lights during the day. Whereas people who are retired (or work at home) spend much of the day at home and would naturally use more heat and light. On my street, only two households have people home during the day. I'm retired and the other person is handicapped. All my other neighbors are away at work during the weekdays (and often gone on weekends). They also tend to go away for holidays and vacations. So in general these comparisons are not valid or useful comparisons.




Like this comment
Posted by bike commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm

You can log onto the City's OPower website Web Link to manage your profile, switch to paperless reports (via email) and to create a personalized action plan.

Our report shows we are very efficient but when I read all of the possible actions I could take I was more determined to reduce even more.


Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Nice! Our report shows that we consume MUCH less energy than our neighbors.

However...

We can see this chart -- but we STILL can't pay our utility bill online?


Like this comment
Posted by watchingu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2010 at 2:32 pm

This is a major change in mission for the Utilities from providing a service to admonishing us how we use it. What if our banks started a check up program on our savings and compared that to our neighbors? The results would be similar and also not meaningful because there are many things to consider. Same here. I think most of us would change banks although we all know it is important to save money. But we can not change our Utility service.

This is presented as just a friendly reminder. But it is meant to make us feel guilty and that we are never doing enough. And what's with updating our information? Does that mean Utilities needs more data on us so that the Utilities can better monitor our usage?

This is how we are treated in a city that cares very much about being energy savers! Welcome Big Brother! Folks we'll never satisfy the bean counters.


Like this comment
Posted by downtown
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2010 at 2:34 pm

It had me, as I sat with a jacket on reading the mailer, as the worst 10%. It was 57 degrees in my house and I had one light on. I rarely watch TV but am guilty of leaving the computer on "sleep" rather than powered off. I looked up my account and it had me as a single apartment dweller rather than a house with a family of 6. Garbage in garbage out as they say. I changed my settings but I don't know how long it will take to update their site, so who knows what reality is. Sure we can and should all be more efficient, but I don't trust there is anything correct about our report. Likely many others are in the same boat.


Like this comment
Posted by bike commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 10, 2010 at 4:37 pm

To Nayeli: you can pay your Palo Alto Utility bill online using credit card or bank draft. You can also set preferences to go paperless.

To register:
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I like objective information and don't take it competitively. Nanny state took over decades ago, big brother has been watching for years, and there is no privacy left. Although I complain about these things, it is the way it is. Why not a little number crunching? And who cares if I am more or less anything than my neighbors!


Like this comment
Posted by WATCHED
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 5:31 pm

WELCOME TO PALO ALTO "BIG BROTHER". KEEP WATCHING!


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 10, 2010 at 5:52 pm

While I find comparative information useful. I found the quick tips completely useless. Our report only listed Quick tips on how to safe gas, and we were already way below the average and the best neighbors. But it did not list anything w/r/t electricity, although our consumption is way high (and we know why). So I found it rather a waste of money.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Rather amusing to read this just at the same time most people are putting up Christmas lights inside and outside their homes.


Like this comment
Posted by Eileen
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Early this fall I received a bill from the city with much higher gas usage than I had ever used before during the summer. I called the city expressing my concern and they sent someone out to check the meter reading. After determining that they had read the meter correctly they told me that it was my problem - not theirs. I did nothing differently the next two months and my usage immediately returned to it's normal level. At no time in my interaction with the city did they express the slightest interest in my problem. I have never had an interaction in which I felt like the city utilities was interested in helping me in any way. My main impression of the city owned utilities is that every year I use less and they charge me more. They also continue to request that I switch to their so called green energy program - a program which will also increase my utilities costs. As far as I can tell no matter how much my actual usage drops my over all utilities bill goes up. This is somewhat of a disincentive to the city's stated goal of having us consume less gas/water/electricity.


Like this comment
Posted by Not-Impressed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 9:10 am

This program is meaningless.

If the Utility wanted to be helpful, then they would provide an online energy analysis tool that would provide use/cost data for dwellings of x square feet that have old appliances, new appliances, with/without insulation, and so on. One person claims that a local non-profit provides something like this, but it should be the obligation of the Utility to provide this tool--particularly since it is a municipal Utility.

One poster suggests that local/county libraries have "wattmeters" that can be borrowed. That's nice, but the utility should also be providing these tools. Customers should be able to email the Utility and request such a tool be dropped off for a week or two, and then email them to pick it up when its finished. The online tool should be able to provide the monthly cost of running a given appliance, based on actual usage, and then provide the cost of replacing that appliance with a more energy-efficient appliance, run for the same number, or fewer, hours.

The Utility could also offer these sorts of "boxes" for a discount, to encourage people to pay attention to these matters over time.

If we ever get to a "smart grid" here in Palo Alto, having some sort of new circuit monitoring equipment that would need to be installed in our homes is also a possibility. So, we all should begin to think a little about more "granularity" in the measurement of our electricity use in our homes.

Unfortunately, as has been posted on this topic many times, as the use of utilities goes down, the per unit cost goes up--since the City has long-term contracts that need to be paid for, one way or another.

It's possible that in the future the Utility might buy more of its power on the "spot" market, but the directions from the uninformed City Council has been to manage the buying using "risk avoidance". This has led to higher prices for some of our utilities, such as natural gas, from time-to-time.



Like this comment
Posted by Not-Impressed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 9:19 am

Amazon.com is selling these power monitors for about $21--

P3 International P4400 Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor:
Web Link

The U.S Department of Energy reports that 20% of our electric bills come from items that are left plugged in when they are not in use, or items that are in standby mode. With the Kill A Watt P4400 we can monitor the energy eaters in our homes and cut down our electric bills at the same time. Plug whatever item you want into the device and it will tell you the efficiency of that item by displaying the kilowatt per hour. This device will help you determine which items are costing you the most to run. The Kill A Watt also calculates voltage, line frequency, current, and power factor. You can calculate your electric bill before you even receive it from the electric company.
---

Rather than screw around worrying about your neighbors' use of power, it would be better to just use a tool like this one, and either install timers on the appliances that might be running too long, or unnecessarily, or replace them with more power efficient models.


Like this comment
Posted by Control others, not yourself
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 11, 2010 at 9:55 am

But, but...but....Not Impressed, this is liberal land, where we worry more about what others are doing and try to control THEM, rather than think about our own behaviors and control our OWN...

Can't wait until we start a program called 'report your neighbor for leaving his light on in the dining room while he goes to the bathroom and get $25 from him in fines" program!!!


Like this comment
Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

We all want to conserve energy but what bugs me is that the Utilities want to scold us to use less. This is wrong to compare my usage to my neighbors because as pointed out above there can be many reasons for variations in usage. The Utilities solution is for us to "update our profile" which smacks of Big Brother.

Why not just increase the costs to discourage excessive energy waste? That way there's no need to collect more and more data on me.


Like this comment
Posted by Jon Foster, Vice Chair, Palo Alto Utilities Advisory Commission
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Let me provide comments on the prior posts.

1) I am pleased – but not surprised – to hear the positive comments from those who find the reports useful and will take them as opportunity to look for ways to reduce energy use. That is, of course, the point of the reports. They are being provided by the Palo Alto utility department to help us all save energy and save money. Some homeowners may be able to save hundreds of dollars a year by implementing energy improvements, including those suggested in the report.

2) Some people don’t like receiving the reports. Some of these people, undoubtedly, received reports stating that they use more energy than their neighbors and feel, as one or two people above said, that they are being scolded for using more energy. The purpose of the reports, however, is not to scold people, but to allow people to save money and save energy. People who do not want to do so can simply throw the report away – or, better yet, contact the utility department and opt out of the program. It takes just a minute to do so; send an email to HomeEnergyReports@CityofPaloAlto.org or call (650) 329-2161 and ask to be taken out of the program.

3) Each Palo Alto utility customer can also access their report online. If you want to receive the report only online (i.e., not receive a paper copy), you can request that using the email address or phone number in my prior point.

4) One of the persons commenting above said that “It is none of the city's business how much energy we use”. In fact, it is the city’s business because the city provides us with our electricity and natural gas! The city is simply using the information on our energy usage that it provides us every months in our bills and providing a new report to show us how our usage compares (i) with our neighbors with similarly sized homes, and (ii) with our own usage during the same period in the prior year. There is no invasion of privacy here. Your report and your utility usage information is not made available to anyone other than you.

5) As noted in a post above, a non-profit organization called Acterra provides home energy audits for Palo Alto residents who would like advice and assistance with energy efficiency improvements. The Palo Alto utility department partners with Acterra to provide the service at no cost to any resident who wants it.

6) Your report is prepared using your actual energy use (which the Palo Alto utility department has) and information on the size of your home, which is obtained from Santa Clara County public records. Your energy use is compared with your neighbors who have homes of approximately the same size. If you find the wrong size is used for your home, that probably means that Santa Clara County does not have the correct size in its records.

7) Several people have noted that their energy use is higher than average for specific reasons (e.g., many people living in the house, a home office, etc.). The reports have no way to take that into account. If you are in that situation and receive a report indicating that you use more energy than average, you may decide to ignore the report. Or you can study the report and determine whether you are using a little more energy than average or a lot more energy than average. Or whether you using more or less than you did last year. Either way, you can consider money-saving improvements. It is, of course, the people who are using more energy than average for whatever reason who stand the gain the most financially from making energy efficiency improvements.

8) Two people above asked how much the reports cost. The answer is the reports will cost the Palo Alto utility department a little less than $15 per year per household. It is expected that the reports will result in Palo Alto utility customers saving, on average, significantly more than $15 per year. Of course, some residents will take no action and save nothing. Other residents will be very proactive and could, as I noted above, save hundreds of dollars per year.

9) The comment immediately above mine suggested that the Palo Alto utility department should raise rates to discourage energy waste. I suspect most residents would disagree with that suggestion. The Palo Alto utility department works hard to keep rates as low as possible. It encourages reduced energy use through incentive programs (for solar panels, solar hot water heaters, energy efficiency upgrades, etc.), the new home energy reports, sponsorship of the Acterra home energy efficiency audits, etc.

I serve as vice chair of Palo Alto's Utilities Advisory Commission. I did not play a role in implementing the new reports, but I, for one, am very happy to be living in a city that provides this kind of a service to its residents. I must say that I find it hard to argue with receiving a report that gives me a better sense of how I can save energy and save money. My thanks to all of you – and everyone in Palo Alto – who will use the new reports as an opportunity to do just that!


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 1:15 pm

If some people want this then they should opt in and pay for it. Why should those who don't want it have to opt out? $15 per household per year is actually a lot of money to spend on this. I think the households who want it should be paying the cost of the program.

The bigger issue is that if we all started using less power, we would suffer increased charges. It has happened with water and with garbage/recycling. There is no real reason for us to consume less if we will be charged more.

I would really like to see the City of Palo Alto saving money much more than trying to get the residents to become more green. There is no way to compare one household with another in terms of utilities usage as lifestyles vary considerably. One of our neighbors has two electric cars which are charged overnight every night. Another neighbor is a senior living on her own in a home much bigger than ours. Another neighbor uses bicycles for all the family for a great deal of the time. Each of them is making their own lifestyle choices and guilt tripping any of us is so wrong.


Like this comment
Posted by Jon Foster
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Clarification on the comment made in the second paragraph above: if we all started using less power, our bills would go down, not up. The utility department incurs two types of costs to deliver electricity and natural gas to us: fixed costs (i.e., costs that do not vary based on how much energy is used) and variable costs (i.e., costs that do vary depending on how much energy is used). If we all used less energy, the fixed costs would remain the same, but the variable costs would go down. As a result, our bills would go down.

Over time, energy prices generally rise. Increased energy efficiency can offset – or more than offset – that increase. People who do not reduce energy use, however, will probably see their bills rise over time. Also, people who do not reduce energy use will end up, in effect, paying a higher portion of the overall fixed costs, because those who have reduced their energy use will be paying lower bills and, thus, be paying a lower portion of the fixed costs. So the argument made in the second paragraph of the post above is, in essence, that you should not want your neighbors to cut their energy use because if they do and you don’t, you might end up paying more for energy. Taken to the logical extreme, one could even say that you want your neighbors to increase their energy use because if they do and you don’t, you could end up paying less for energy! I suspect, however, that argument would find very little support among most Palo Alto residents.


Like this comment
Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Jon, I do believe that most of palo altans get it: we want to save energy and most of us take that seriously and try to do what we can. But we do not want Utilities to keep tabs on us. It is an invasion of privacy to me if Utilities is generating a report comparing me to my neighbors. You don't see it that way. But even if I opt out, Utilities still has this report. Will it become a penalty in the future?

I don't think this is right to keep a "profile" on us and our usage.

I like getting suggestions as we have in the past but this new program is wrong. (Make it opt in for those who want it.)


Like this comment
Posted by Jon Foster
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I don't quite follow why generating the report is an invasion of privacy, given that the utility department is simply using the energy usage data it already has plus the publicly available data on the size of houses. But for anyone who disagrees on this, I encourage opting out of the program. That will immediately stop the report and any perceived invasion of privacy. No reports will be issued for anyone who opts out.

On the issue of whether it's better to design the program so that you have to opt in (as opposed to opting out), my guess is that of the 20,000 or so households in Palo Alto that will receive the report, fewer than 1,000 will opt out (in fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see an opt out rate of only 1-2%). I think it makes much more sense to ask less than 1,000 people to opt out than to ask more than 19,000 people to opt in!


Like this comment
Posted by Not-Impressed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Originally I was a little annoyed by this project, but from hearing that it costs $15/home, I am outraged! This comes to about $350K/year for the 20,000 odd residential homes served by the Utility.

> Approved by the City Council in May and financed by stimulus funds, > the personalized Home Energy Report will be distributed to around
> 20,000 participating account holders, who will receive it with their > bill every two months.

And this is why the "Obama Stimulus" has failed so miserably. Out grandchildren will be paying for this.

It gets a little deeper, with this revelation:

> Such reports, offered by 27 utilities across the country, compare
> properties' metered energy use based on approximate square footage
> according to county records and the kind of heating used, if that
> information is available.

So .. is this a service that is centrally located somewhere, that the PAU sends all of our account information to, that then builds data bases from this information, and then sends out the reports to these 27 participating utilities? Are those participating only "municipals"--that have decided that "preaching" to their captive customers is now their god-given right?

And what about the ownership of our individual account information. How many of us have seen any kind of "privacy rights" adopted by the Utility, relative to our account use? Or, since this is a municipal (which is just a "face" of the municipal corporation) is it possible that we, as captive customers of this government monopoly, have no privacy rights? Who in the City is promising that this information will not be resold to a direct marketer somewhere?

While many of us are supporters of the City's installing a "smart grid" at some point in time, there are many privacy rights issues that are still not even remotely on the horizon yet--that need a lot of discussion.

For instance, the next generation of appliances could come with small computers, and "memory". The idea that the Utility would have a right to read that memory, and then give it way to some 3rd party, for whatever use, is a distinct possibility that I suspect very few people would be happy with.

Sadly no one on the City Council seems to have asked any questions about privacy rights relative to the ownership, and the use, of this data.

By the way .. the idea that the average house is somehow going to save $15 a year on power based on this report is hard to fathom. The biggest power wasters are old refrigerators and freezers. It does not take long to point out that if your refrig is wasting n$ a month, that you can pay for a new refrig that uses less power in M months. You don't need anyone from the City to get involved with this decision.

People who don't see the privacy rights issues here should not be on public commissions.

> the city has a right to be involved with your
power use.

To the extent that the City has to project utility use, and purchase contracts to acquire these energy commodities, the City does need to know about the aggregate power use of the residents. But to begin to impose itself into our lives, trying to impose some sort of "guilt trip" on each customer's power (or utility use) really pushes the line. I don't care how many unelected utility commissions huff, and puff, and threaten to sue us, or claim that we "won't work in this town again" .. this really has pushed the line.


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Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Thank you Jon Foster for some great comments. I appreciate it. The profound amount of sniveling over this issue is mind blowing. Don't Palo Altans have anything better to do?


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2010 at 6:08 pm

How about sniveling over $15/household x 20,000 households = $300,000.

Or, if aol real estate is correct, 13,135 households = $197,025/year. Web Link


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Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I agree with Neal. Thanks, Jon Foster, for the excellent information about the program. I simply can't believe all the whining and squawking about privacy over a report meant to give us useful information about our utility usage. I am happy to live in a city that provides me with such a report.


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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2010 at 6:49 pm

@john foster wrote:

3) Each Palo Alto utility customer can also access their report online. If you want to receive the report only online (i.e., not receive a paper copy), you can request that using the email address or phone number in my prior point.

Where? I looked through My Utilities Account and didn't see it, including in the PDF of the December bill. Am I missing something?


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Jon

Thanks for your detailed reply.

As for the opt in v opt out, I think it is worth pointing out that you are correct in stating that few will opt out. Those that do take the trouble to opt out will do it because they (a) know that they can do so and (b) are very upset. There will be many who are upset and won't know for various reasons that they can opt. There will be many who are upset, but not upset enough to take the time and effort to opt out. On the other hand, if this was done purely for those who took the time and effort to opt in it would presumably be useful for these people and cause no effort to those who are not interested or who would be upset about this.

I think that this type of program should definitely be opt in, just so that the only ones receiving the information are those that are going to find it useful and are not interested in whether their privacy is violated or not.

As for my family, I find the comparisons with last year's bill a great basis for comparison and any time usage changes we can see if there is a good reason for it. That is much more helpful than the special mailing we received on this new program.


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Posted by PA Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I, for one, am grateful to be getting this information from the City on my consumption of energy. It gives me an idea of where I am with wasting or conserving energy. It will help me make better decisions about my use. And no one is forcing me.

I suspect the unhappy people are the ones who waste a lot of energy and are embarrassed to find out. Grow up, accept and deal with it.


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Posted by Not-Impressed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm

> getting this information from the City on my consumption of energy

The Utility already provides a very useful data set of each customer's gas, water and electrical use on a month-by-month basis for the previous year in the monthly utility bill. While this information does not necessarily offer any specific information about "waste", it can be very useful if a leak, or some sort of malfunction in an electrical appliance were to occur that would increase the monthly use of that commodity.

This data is most helpful; comparing this data to other people's use does not seem helpful.


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Posted by Charles
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 11, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Since 30 to 40% of residents are renters, will the landlord make the necessary capital investment for installation of more energy efficient appliances, addition of wall and attic insulation where possible, and double paned windows? Maybe, maybe not since the landloard has no immediate incentive to do so. It he/she does, the rents would likely be raised.

Owners or renters can lower thermostats, take shorter showers, make sure the clothes washer is full when used, turn off room lights not in use, etc. These will likely have less effect on energy savings than making capital improvements but will help.

Let us assume that 60 to 70% (90 to 95%??)of residents take all steps necessary to reduce energy use to a household's practical limit. Will the report's approximately $300,000 annual cost be discontinued? Or will it continue to be published although the return on investment is approaching zero?

As noted by many, the criteria to determine if energy is being used efficiently is subject to many variables. But the usefulness of the report should be reviewed periodically to ensure the $300,000 is still achieving worthwhile results. After all when there are no more stimulus funds, we taxpayers will foot the bill for its continuance.


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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

We've had an Acterra audit, result being we were already about as energy efficient as we could be (we were hard-pressed to find 3 lights that hadn't yet been switched over). But related to medical, we have higher electrical usage by a lot. Has the report come out? I'd like to opt out, but I'd be upset if it's already too late.


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Posted by Judy
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I completely agree with Neal and Sylvia. Thanks, Jon, for the very helpful comments. And more importantly, thanks to Palo Alto for providing these reports. The report was really a wakeup call for me that I could probably reduce my utility bills substantially. I’m at a complete loss as to how anyone could be upset about these reports. I agree with PA Citizen -- to the folks who apparently don’t want to be told that they use more energy than average, I say “get over it”! That’s what my report told me, but rather than lashing out at the city for telling me that, I’m embracing the opportunity to save money and help the environment. As for the cost of the reports, let’s assume the average household spends $1,500 a year on electricity and gas. That’s $30 million a year. If these reports can help people save even 1% on their bills, the savings will offset the cost.


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Posted by Nosy
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 12, 2010 at 1:00 am

Glad to know the city is keeping such detailed records about its residents. Just think what kind of records the city would be keeping if it were providing us with our Internet access (as many busy-bodies had wanted). I cannot wait until they install a camera in each of our homes to make sure we are obeying all city ordinances.

I realize some think the city is invading their privacy, but I suspect the utilities department is jealous of the TSA, and all of the invasions of privacy it enjoys as we board commercial aircraft.


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Posted by Morgan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2010 at 8:43 am

I think this is ridiculous and inaccurate as many of utilities bills are. I always have to call and discuss how my bill could be twice as much as the month before when I was away all month. "Maybe your neighbors are using your house...." I don't think so. In addition, I'm not sure how a single person can use 3 times as much energy as my neighbors who have a 2 story house and are a family of 6. I'm not buying this. Sorry.


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Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2010 at 10:31 am

The main problem is that the reports are not very accurate because there are too many variables. And as for many cities benefiting from this new program, maybe energy conservation was very new for them. But here in Palo Alto, we have been conserving energy for years. It’s fine for Utilities to make suggestions as in the past. Most of us have been trying hard to reduce our carbon footprint. But this new program will not help.

For example, take a 1500 sq ft home “A” that uses more energy than 1500 sq ft home “B”. “B” travels a lot. Or, “A” has a sick parent at home and needs to keep it warmer. So does the Utility need to know that?

Or, take 1500 sq ft “A” which uses more than like sized “B” but considerably less energy than the monster home down the street at 3500 sq ft “C”. “A” gets the bad report but is using more than “B” because of hobbies or just likes the home a little warmer. The carbon footprint of “A” is much less than ”C” but that doesn’t show up on the report.

Or, the big family with 4 kids uses a lot more energy than the no kids couple. Again the bigger carbon footprint is in the house with 6 people but it’s the house with 2 people that gets the bad report.
If your lifestyle choice is to have a smaller home and no kids, it should be ok for you to keep your house warmer (health-wise you may need to) or use more electricity because you have hobbies or you plug in your energy saving car. You shouldn’t have to explain all the details to the Utilities company. They not asking for all that today, but clearly they will need to if they are serious about these new reports.

Updating the “profile” does not change the fact that there are many variables to be considered in the over all use of energy.

Utilties becoming such a busybody does not bode well.


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Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2010 at 4:46 am

Since I haven't seen my report yet, I can't comment on how well it is done. But, for those who have commented that for various reasons they need to keep their houses on the warm side, I would like to recommend that they consider additional attic insulation. Many years ago, I had my attic superinsulated as part of a city program back then. My house has been cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, comfortable, and inexpensive to heat ever since. By far the best investment that I have ever made.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2010 at 7:26 am

Eichlers don't have attics. Eichlers, which are almost worshipped, are very hard to insulate.


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Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2010 at 3:30 pm

The Utilities Department has posted a press release about its "New Home Energy Reporting Program for Residential Customers" at: Web Link

According to the press release, the new program is phishing for information about residences and their occupants by saying, "customers are encouraged to go online and provide specific details such the number of persons in the home, whether a pool or sauna is at the home or to update the size of the home."

I am disappointed but not surprised that a member of the Utilities Advisory Commission is responding to comments about the department's new program.

The Commission members are supposed to collectively make recommendations to the City Council.

The staff is supposed to communicate with the public about the staff's programs.

The Utilities Director may like to think that Commission members are unpaid staff members, but the Commissioners should not encourage that attitude.

Next time the public comments on a Utilities Department program, the department director or one of her paid staff should respond.


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Posted by Jon Foster
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 13, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I am at a loss why a member of a city commissioner should not be viewed as having just as much right as any other city resident to post a comment in a public forum such as Town Square. I didn't know I surrendered my first amendment rights when I volunteered to serve on the Utilities Advisory Commission!

I should add that the comments I have posted are simply my own views. I don't speak for the UAC, the Utility Department, or the City. I assumed that was quite clear, but if it wasn't, then now it is.

Given the interest in the reports that has been expressed on the this forum, I thought my comments on some of the fact surrounding the reports would be helpful to those following these posts.

You will not see responses from city employees in this forum. As is the case with most government entities, Palo Alto's city government does not, to the best of my knowledge, participate in online discussions such as this one.


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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Jon, when you post with this handle "Jon Foster, Vice Chair, Palo Alto Utilities Advisory Commission," it makes it look like you are acting in an official capacity. If you are expressing your personal opinion only, you might want to point that out so people aren't confused.

If you are sharing or basing your views on non-public info (I'm not sure if you did or not), you might want to think twice about it, since it is hard to be "just another city resident" which having privileged access to certain info. Just my two cents.


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Posted by Jon Foster
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 13, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Me Too: Thanks for your comment. The information I provided is based on public information. UAC meetings are all public meetings and the written reports and other documents we receive are all public. I suspect, however, that most people don't closely follow UAC meetings or the written materials for those meetings! That's why I thought it might be helpful to provide some input based on my knowledge of what has been discussed in UAC meetings and in the documents connected to those meeting.

Going forward, if I weigh in on future discussions on utility issues, I'll make note to always state exclipitly that my statements represent my own views or understanding of the facts and that I don't speak for the UAC, the Utility Department, or the City.


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Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Resident,

"Eichlers don't have attics. Eichlers, which are almost worshipped, are very hard to insulate."

I know this is off subject, but it's nice to see someone agrees with my take on the Eichlers. "Almost worshipped" puts it mildly. I've never been able to understand why these are in such high regard, and can go for 1.5 million, when they were designed to be cheap post-war housing for the working class.

The fact that they are only affordable by the top 1/2 of 1 % of the population speaks volumes to how far our standard of living has fallen since the 50's.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 9:52 am

The real issue IMHO is that the city spent $500 MILLION (according to a city staff member) on this project!

Am I the only one who finds that totally insane?


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 9:55 am

SORRY! $500K is the correct number. (I started writing half a million and then didn't change the whole sentence.)

In any case, it's still totally insane.


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Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 14, 2010 at 11:23 am

Agree, I don't think the costs of this new program will benefit us. Instead the Utilities will keep tabs on us, and most likely will want to know more and more so they can evaluate our usage.

If Utilities is really serious about this program and believes it could help us, then all they need to do is make this information available in a general report. Just make a chart (with number of people in the house, sq. footage, pool or no pool) and do this maybe twice a year, for example in winter when we use more energy to heat our homes and in summer when we use more water. No need for Utilities to scold us individually. No need to log onto our "profile" -- this chart should just be posted for anyone to check.

This saves money and avoids invading our privacy.



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Posted by Just Wondering
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 14, 2010 at 11:56 am

I got my report in the mail and was wondering about what it means to say they are comparing my energy usage to those of "similar sized homes" .
I live in a 1-bedroom with a spouse who is home all day looking after our baby. I'm pretty sure that most of the homes that are similar near me contain a single person or at most a couple both of whom work (so the home is empty all day). I would have been more impressed if the utility company had written to me an said "hey we noticed in May your utility consumption went up 40%- hat's up? Can we help you save energy/money?"


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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I finally got a look at my report online. Not very helpful, I'm afraid. It says I use/spend more than some, less than others. I have a bigger family than average, plus a pool (pumps, occasional heating), plus older furnaces and appliances, plus 4-5 computers. Probably a bit more than average on those things. So I'm not sure what I am supposed to do with this info - fill in my pool to get "better"?

It is a little disturbing to hear that it costs $500K (per year? one time?) - is that right Jon Foster (you listed $15/household, but did not say the total amount)? If true, that seems validate the sense that the utility has way more money than it needs and looks for ways to spend it.


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Posted by Charles
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Jon Foster. Thank you for trying to explain the background of the Home Energy Report. A couple of questions if you don't mind.

Did the existing staff compile this Report or were additional permanent staff hired to do it?

The cost to the Utilities Dept. for the Report will at some point exceed the realized savings. How is the cost effectiveness of the $300,000 annual expense being measured?

If you do not know the answers, could you direct us ratepayers to the person(s) in the Utilities Dept. who can explain this?


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 4:23 pm

According to today's Daily Post, the cost of the program is $547,000, $203,000 of which came from stimulus funds.

Funny, I thought stimulus funds were to help the economy by creating jobs and helping those in financial trouble.

The energy comparisons, as so many have pointed out, are pretty much meaningless.

Perhaps Jon Foster can tell us if this is a one-time cost or ongoing. I would also like to know

- Were new employees hired to handle this program? If so, what do they do? Lick envelopes? Seems like the reports can easily be computer-generated.

- What's the breakdown of how this vast amount of money was spent? I find it staggering that half a million dollars was needed for something so simple.

Of course, the Utilities Department can always raise rates to pay for these projects.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Apparently this is a 3-year program. See CMR 191:10 at
Web Link

Read it and weep at the incredible waste of your tax dollars:

"Approval of Utilities Public Benefit Three-Year Contract with OPOWER,. Inc. in the Total Amount of $574,083, $213,000 of Which Comes From Federal Stimulus Funds, for Administration and Delivery of Residential Home Energy Reports."

"The cost of the project is $574,083 for project development and then two years of report delivery ($74,083 setnp and $250,000 per year)."

Read the Scope of Project and Deliverables and see if you can figure out -- in your wildest imagination -- how this work can be worth the cost.

Pure pork!


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Part of the problem with all this wasteful spending is the SAP system and the fact that consultants always seem to be needed to do ANYTHING with the city’s information systems.

Corporations I’ve worked for had in-house talent that could easily crank out reports like the energy comparisons by doing a few DB queries.

According to CMR 129:09: In February 2009, the UD signed a contract with Axon Solutions Inc. for $1,239,290 for a total not to exceed amount of $8,047,368 for software system integration services to effect the implementation of SAP “industry-specific solution for utilities (IS-U).” That’s bureaucratic-speak for an online billing system.

“The IS-U system will replace the Utilities Department’s present Customer Information System (CIS), which is used to generate customer bills, collect customer data on commodity consumption, and to provide data in order to develop rates for the following utilities in the City: electric, gas, water, waste water, refuse, storm drain and fiber optics.”

SO – how come the UD has to fork over an ADDITIONAL $547,000 just to get these comparison reports?

How come the city manager and the city council don’t ask these questions?


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Posted by People are syaing no.
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 14, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Jon Foster:

People are saying NO. Please listen.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm

It's too late to say NO. The contract has been signed. It's a done deal.


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Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 9:22 am

Pat what do you mean that it's too late to say no? Utilities could still just provide the information in a general way and those people who want access to it can do so. No need to individualize this or for the Utilities to have "profiles" on us. That's onerous to say the least. Let's not throw any more good money after the bad.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

It's too late because the contract for $547K is signed. The money has already been thrown away.


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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 15, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Surely this is another "accomplishment" that are green-filtering council can be proud of:

Web Link


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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