Google is using peer pressure to help cities save energy

Solar potential.
Solar potential.
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With climate change on many minds, cities around the world have affirmed their dedication to improving sustainability efforts. To help with that, Google recently unveiled the Environmental Insights Explorer, which overlays emissions data and efficiency analyses atop a city’s Google map.

So far, the tool’s beta version has been rolled out in five cities: Buenos Aires, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Victoria, Canada; and, in the US, Pittsburgh and Mountain View, California. The project will collaborate with more cities to bring additional data into the fold.

The tool’s readout includes estimates of building and transportation emissions, plus rooftop solar potential, based on data collected from Google products and projects. Those numbers paint a surprisingly thorough picture: Google Earth satellite images can be mined to infer whether a building is commercial or residential, while location services and maps searches give an estimate for where Google users go and what mode of transportation they use. Users can manipulate variables like the average fuel efficiency of cars and the amount of electricity coming from the grid, so city planners and policymakers can play with numbers and develop a game plan for achieving sustainability goals.

The tool’s most important feature might be one Google didn’t mention in its announcement this week: estimates on how each city is doing compared to others. Mountain View, for instance, ranks “medium” in building emissions, while Buenos Aires ranks low and Melbourne high.

It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, and research has shown that social norms can be used to promote energy conservation. Dan Yates and Alex Laskey built their software company Opower (now part of Oracle) on this premise. Opower works with utility companies to send customers reports about their home’s energy consumption relative to similar homes, along with tips to improve their numbers. Since its launch in 2008, the program has, on average, led to a 2% to 5% increase in energy savings, saved over $1 billion in household energy costs, and cut 13 billion lbs of CO2 emissions, according to a recent report in Perspectives on Psychological Science (paywall).

Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer is essentially a city-level version of those Opower reports. Perhaps some friendly competition will jolt metros to improve their sustainability practices.