Xcel Energy Inc. is sending some of its customers report cards -- complete with smiley faces -- that lets them know how their energy use compares with their neighbors'.

This latest way to keep up with the Joneses is part of a new three-year pilot program aimed at encouraging homeowners to cut down on their energy consumption. It is targeting about 35,000 gas and electric customers, primarily in St. Paul and its suburbs.

The idea of experimenting with social pressure as a way to conserve energy is growing across the country. Utilities in several states, including California and Washington, are running similar programs. And several utilities in Minnesota are already seeing results as they work to meet state mandates to cut energy use.

The first batch of reports, which went out to Xcel customers last month, lets the customers know in a colorful bar chart how they rate when their combined electrical and natural gas use for the past month is compared with 100 neighbors in similar-size homes. It also compares them with their most efficient neighbors.

If they're doing "great," they get two smiley faces, and one for doing "good." There are no frowns for the energy guzzlers; the company that runs the program nixed the frowns after a California utility found that they angered people.

Instead, heavy users are told "You used more than average. Turn the report over to find ways to save."

The report also compares a household's energy consumption for the past 12 months in two line charts, one for electricity and one for natural gas. That section lets the customer know by what percentage they used more or less energy than their neighbors. If they have saved money, they are told how much.

The report gives each household a numerical rank among their 100 neighbors; anyone who is in the top 20 gets a cheery "great job!"

Crystal Manik, one of the managers for the program, said the goals are twofold: It lets customers know how they are doing and provides them with the tools to make changes. The idea of trying to rate well among your neighbors is a strong motivator, she said.

"It's sort of getting back to people's natural instincts, which is that there's a competitive spirit about it," she said.

Connexus Energy, an electric cooperative that serves several north metro communities, was the first utility in Minnesota to experiment with the program. Next month, it is wrapping up a 12-month-pilot for 40,000 households.

"We decided to continue the program for the next several years because of the great results," said Bruce Sayler, who manages government relations for Connexus.

Inspiring competition

Energy use has dropped 2 percent to 3 percent because of the program, he said, and most people have been happy with it. "The vast majority say, 'I'm using more energy than my neighbors. What can I do about it?''' About 2 percent have "opted out," with some saying it's "too Big Brotherish," he said.

OPower Inc., a software company in Virginia that runs the home energy report programs for the utilities, said it expects the energy savings in Xcel's pilot to be 2 to 3 percent. It said it's also working with Lake Country Power, Owatonna Public Utilities, Austin Energy and CenterPoint Energy in Minnesota.

Some neighbors in St. Paul's Tangletown neighborhood have received the report. Merle Schnepf, 77, who lives on Sargent Avenue, said he didn't get one yet but hopes he does.

"If I didn't stack up, that would give me a good idea that I'd better start looking at replacing the windows," he said, because he has already replaced some insulation and put in a new furnace in 2008. "The windows in this older house are in good condition, but I still put that stuff from 3M on them. Plus, I'm kind of snoopy, anyhow."

Manik said the report doesn't reveal any personal or billing information and that customers can "opt out" if they choose to do so. Feedback, so far, has been generally positive, she said, with most callers curious to learn more.

Expanding the program

Xcel will be monitoring energy usage of those in the program on a monthly basis, she said, to determine if the program is working. If it is, Xcel could seek approval to expand it.

Manik said the first mailings went out in mid-December to the 35,000 customers in the east metro who are part of the pilot program. They will receive in the mail free monthly, bimonthly or quarterly neighborhood comparison reports.

Xcel said that an additional 15,000 customers will receive the printed report by mail only once. Through the January mailing they will be invited to receive online usage reports and tips. The January mailing is scheduled to begin this week.

In addition, Xcel said that about 450 of the 35,000 pilot program customers will begin testing an in-home display device called the Energy Detective, which shows electricity consumption in real time. The device will help these customers understand the immediate effects of using electric equipment and services.

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707