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.