Can Gamification Dent Home Energy Use?

Gamification — the use of games, badges, points, stars and any other play-like techniques to change individuals’ behaviors — is cool terminology. But despite its fuzzy logic, it continues to attract eyeballs and investment.

IDC Energy Insights’ recent study The Role of Gamification in Utilities’ Consumer Engagement predicts gamification apps, tool and services will pull in over $13 million in spending this year from utilities worldwide, which isn’t much. But IDC expects that investment to accelerate to $65 million by 2016, at which point it expects that 60 percent of what it calls “progressive worldwide energy retailers” will be using at least one gamified application.

“The use of gamification in the energy sector is still in its early infancy,” IDC senior research analyst Adam Ajzensztejn told SolarEnergy. “Increased access to granular and real-time energy consumption data is one of the key drivers supporting its take-up in this sector, enabling instantaneous feedback to be provided to consumers.”

Obtaining, processing and learning from that energy consumption data is becoming quite the bonanza, if one glances at more accessible papers than those found on IDC. Earlier this month, most of them reported that Google was dropping $3 billion to bring home automation upstart Nest Labs, and its self-learning smart thermostats, beneath the big-data overlord’s internetworked umbrella. One could argue that gamification spooked both users and observers of Google’s acquisition concerned about how, when and where their private data will be shared with the smart grid.

“Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services,” Nest explained in a statement after the takeover. “We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

But activating consumer information, and therefore engagement, is gamification’s standard operating procedure. It’s hard to gamily what you can’t share, and the more you share, the more you can game. Shakespeare’s Hamlet would call that “the rub.”

“The use of web, mobile applications and social networks to engage consumers in real-time enables messages to be relayed to them in a timely and motivationally compelling manner,” IDC’s Ajzensztein explained. “Energy consumption data can be combined with publicly available data or personal data to generate a consumer profile which can be used to optimize messaging.”

That said, gamification’s party line, so to speak, is more of a love tap than a privacy invasion, according to IDC. “Gamification does not usually aim to sway a target audience to do something they do not want to do in the first instance,” added Ajzensztejn. “Its intention is to provide a gentle nudge to what may be mundane or low priority, and light up the path and make the experience more engaging and fun.”

It’s worked pretty well in the retail space, where badges, points and more signifiers of dealmaking and altered behavior have brought in nice returns from SAP to Starbucks. After all, it was only yesterday I landed a free pizza from a new neighborhood eatery just for “checking in” on Facebook. Speaking of, solar panel heavyweight SunPower launched a gamification campaign on Facebook in 2011, reportedly the first in the renewable energy sector. It was a standard click-through contest to educate gamers about solar power and hand off a free system to one lucky competitor.

“While we don’t currently have any online games underway, SunPower is always evaluating compelling new ways to engage with our community,” spokesperson Ingrid Ekstrom said in an interview. And they’re not alone: According to study from Gartner, although gamification continues to grow as a core business strategy for major organizations worldwide, but 80 percent of current gamification apps will fail because of poor design. Remember the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District contest that put frowning faces on energy bills for customers who weren’t as efficient as their neighbors. It was dropped like a bad habit.

But that’s just how infancy goes. First you fall, then you crawl, then you walk and then you run.

“Renewable energy sources such as solar are notoriously difficult for utilities to integrate into the grid due to their intermittent nature,” Ajzensztejn argued. “Much of today’s electricity grid infrastructure is outdated and was never designed to cope with high capacities of these fluctuating supplies. The herald of technological solutions such as smart grids and energy storage solutions will certainly create a more resilient grid, easing the uptake of renewable energy sources. However, consumer behavior approaches also play an important role in how the integration of renewable energy sources can be supported.”

Game on.

This article appeared at Solar Energy