The Truth About Utilities That Save Energy and Cash

If you're a soft touch, you may have run across earnest young people on street corners or movie theaters asking if you have a minute to help save the environment. They may even come to your front door, offering to switch your energy provider to an equally or lower-priced green option. That's generally a scam, and that's not what this article is about.

Instead, you may have heard from your energy company — verified! — that if you conserve energy during peak use hours, you may be eligible for big savings or better rates. There's nothing to enroll in; you just follow guidelines like using the energy-saver setting on your A/C or doing a load of laundry when no one else is likely to. Researchers at Ohio State University looked into whether these behaviors actually help you when the bill comes. Unfortunately, perception is overriding performance throughout the data collected.

The OSU team looked at more than 8,700 energy customers in the American Southwest over a 12-month period. Those who participated in time-of-use programs were actually saving a little on their bills, but not very much. However, they believed, for the most part, that their savings were much greater. It's a sunk-cost fallacy: "They may be thinking, 'I made all these efforts, things like turning off my lights, so I must be saving money,'" said lead author Nicole Sintov, "when in reality what they're doing is barely moving the needle on their usage or bills."

This doesn't mean you should ditch energy-saving measures altogether, although you can cut yourself some slack if you're not totally strict. This is a systemic and technological issue, mostly for providers. If you want to conserve power, the cheapest way to do it might actually be social.