Surprise! Energy efficiency contest democratizes the workplace

This is a very interesting example of the kinds of synergies that can spring up when techies begin to pay close attention to what we’ve been ignoring for far too long.

New twist in the energy efficiency story

September, 2012

by Elisa Wood

New energy tech meets behavioral psychology


Blend a little new energy tech with a pinch of behavioral psychology and you’re bound to get something unexpected. Consider what happened when New York City-based ThinkEco lead a four-month energy challenge for international industrial packaging company Greif. The goal, of course, was to save energy. And that they achieved. Sixty employees in two Greif buildings cut their energy use 2,400 kWh over 10 weeks. But it was something else that made the challenge interesting, especially for businesses.

The story begins with the Ohio-based Greif already high on the sustainability charts. The manufacturer, which had $4.2 billion in sales last year, reduced its energy use company-wide 10% between 2007 and 2010. Further, Greif plans to achieve a 15% cut in energy use by 2015 and 20% by 2020 (measured by per unit of production with 2008 as a base year). The company also has aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gases and landfill waste.

Having done the obvious to save energy, Greif was in search of the innovative. Enter The Modlet, developed by energy efficiency tech company ThinkEco
The modlet is a small box that you plug into an electrical outlet. It comes with a USB port that goes into your computer. This sets up a wireless signal that allows the modlet to talk to your computer. You plug an appliance into the modlet, and then your computer screen shows the energy use of the appliance.

Most interesting, from your computer you can control the power flow into the appliance, and even schedule shut offs in advance. For example, you might set up a schedule to turn off power to devices not in use on nights and weekends.

Using the modlet, ThinkEco arranged a competition between two Greif buildings, with a team of 30 employees in each. The project stems from behavioral research that indicates people are more apt to save energy when comparing their performance against others – one of several ideas emerging in the study of how and why we use energy.

Modlets were handed out to the employees. The teams used the devices to uncover ways to save energy, achieve reductions, and build an energy IQ. Members of each team shared a common web dashboard where they could monitor results and share ideas. The teams performed well. But what surprised Mei Shibata, ThinkEco’s chief strategy officer, wasn’t the energy savings, but how employees went above and beyond what was required:

“We were surprised by how much offline interaction there was between people on the dashboard. That to me was interesting. They did it on their own.”

The project took on a life of its own and started to achieve other kinds of employee goals businesses strive for, unrelated to energy savings. Young employees became engaged. Team members met on their own over lunch to strategize. Hierarchies dissolved.

“It became a team building exercise. It was a great way to get people to talk to each other. I was amazed at how seriously people took it – we were asking them to think about something that was not in their job description”

She added that the project seemed to democratize the workplace:

“We had administrative assistants, line managers… we had all types of employees participating. It didn’t matter who you were, you were in it together with the rest of your team.”

Shibata is not completely sure what inspired them to rally, but at least part of it seemed to be the visual nature of the project. Many understood in an abstract way that their company was pursuing sustainability, but here they were able to actually see and effect changes. Before then “they knew they worked for a sustainable-minded company – but how did it relate to me?” she said. The project paid for itself through the energy savings. The motivational benefits and the team building were an added benefit.

So if ThinkEco and Greif are an indication, the integration of behavioral psychology into energy efficiency may create added and unexpected improvements to corporate cultures that have nothing to do with energy. Something to watch for as more and more businesses explore employee-driven energy efficiency.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose free newsletter on energy efficiency is available at

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