NStar Energy Monitors May Lower Consumption

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Massachusetts energy provider NStar is the first utility to offer low-cost energy monitors to encourage its customers to use less energy. The company says its counterintuitive move is not motivated by state policy changes that would protect its profits as energy use declines.


As we've just heard, that energy bill, if passed, would require home appliances to be more energy efficient. One power company in Massachusetts has launched a program to encourage people to save energy by using their appliances less, which is a little surprising since electric companies make money when their customers use more energy. Shannon Mullen has this story.

SHANNON MULLEN: The Boston-based utility NStar believes if people can see how much their energy use costs, they'll cut back. So the company is selling its customers a device called a power cost monitor that translates kilowatt-hours into dollars and cents in real time. So far more than 1,800 households have them, including Mary Mangen's(ph). She has a two-bedroom home in Somerville, Massachusetts and wants to reduce its carbon footprint.

Ms. MARY MANGEN: I was so surprised when they wanted to help me save energy and save money, because it's their dollars, really. I'm a small business owner; I don't usually discourage my customers from using my product.

MULLEN: The monitor retails for $135, but NStar's picking up most of the cost so its customers can get one for less than $30.

Mangen says the system's easy to install. It comes with a wireless device that connects to the home's power meter and transmits data to the handheld monitor, which looks like an oversized remote control with a screen that shows how much energy the household is using.

When Mangen makes toast, her monitor spikes to 29 cents an hour. When she throws a load of clothes in the dryer, her use goes up to $1.09 an hour.

Ms. MANGEN: When you see it running and you're thinking, well, I could have put it on the line for free.

MULLEN: Since she got her monitor, Mangen has also bought a clothesline, a solar oven, and energy-efficient light bulbs. But she's shaved about 15 percent off her monthly bill. NStar says that's about average.

The company doesn't know yet how many customers have changed their behavior, but utilities in other states have results from similar pilot programs.

In Texas, the energy company TXU found that 75 percent of participants using a similar device lowered their energy use. So far NStar's customers are showing similar motivation, says company spokeswoman Caroline Allen.

Ms. CAROLINE ALLEN (Spokeswoman, NStar): There's just an awakening going on around the country that people want to be more conscious of their energy use and try to cut back where they can.

MULLEN: Massachusetts is one of several states considering a major policy change called decoupling that would encourage energy companies to expand conservation initiatives. It would allow them to raise rates to offset money they lose by delivering less electricity.

John Anderson, an energy and resources consultant with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, says that's a huge shift for companies that have always focused on meeting the ever-increasing demand for energy.

MR. JOHN ANDERSON (Consultant, Rocky Mountain Institute): That's been for a hundred years. Now we're saying to them, look, we recognize that there are social costs to generating and using power that were not recognized before. We want you to start recognizing those costs and building those into the way you do business.

MULLEN: Environmental groups support decoupling, but others worry about accountability. Charlie Acquard heads the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates. His group represents rate payers and wants to protect them from utility companies that could abuse decoupling.

Mr. CHARLIE ACQUARD (Executive Director, NASUCA): We don't want a situation where a utility claimed losses for conservation programs that didn't exist. We believe that losses due to conservation must be legitimate and measurable.

MULLEN: If enough people cut back, it should be easy for utilities to prove losses from conservation efforts, like NStar's energy monitor program. The company says if decoupling takes effect, it could afford to expand the initiative. But that hasn't happened yet, and the program has been so popular that NStar is almost out of money to pay for it.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.

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