Going out of your way to save electricity around the house is a mostly thankless task.

Turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, unplugging dormant appliances and giving the AC unit(s) a well-deserved rest aren’t unpleasant or difficult actions per se. But aside from maybe shaving a few bucks off the electric bill and the self-satisfaction that comes with doing the right thing, there usually isn’t any outside recognition involved with such deeds. And it’s not that there necessarily needs to be — we should all aim to make our homes more energy-efficient regardless of any sort of “reward.” But patting oneself on the back can be exhausting, and a token of appreciation — a little sweetener — can nudge us in the right direction when apathy or laziness sets in.

And this is why OhmConnect exists.

Founded in 2014, the San Francisco-based startup is in the business of financially rewarding California utility customers who dial back their home energy usage and conserve during times of peak demand or “demand response” events.

For example, during a sweltering summer afternoon when air conditioning is cranked up to the max and the electric grid is working overtime, enrolled homeowners and apartment-dwellers receive a text alert from OhmConnect suggesting ways they can save energy — mostly simple stuff like adjusting the thermostat a degree or two, holding off on running the dishwasher or clothes dryer, powering down desktop computers and gargantuan televisions. You get the picture. These 60-minute-long periods of easing up on electricity — dubbed “OhmHours” — are completely voluntary. Utility customers can opt out of participating. But if they do participate and their electric usage is found to be lower than average for that same hour during a normal weekend or weekday, then they receive credits, which in turn can be redeemed for cold hard cash.

As detailed in a recent profile by Fast Company, a few hundred — or even a couple thousand — scattered households simultaneously cutting the lights for an hour when the grid is strained doesn’t ultimately have that much of an impact in the larger scheme of things. But what if hundreds of thousands of reward-seeking Californian households all limit their electric usage at the same time?

Per Fast Company, OhmConnect has signed up an impressive 290,000 users since launch. (When signing up, users agree to let OhmConnect monitor their smart meter activity.) It’s likely that a large number of enrolled households don’t necessarily participate every time that demand spikes and an OhmHour alert comes through. But a sizable number likely do. And it’s these households that have been duly rewarded for their energy-conserving vigilance.

OhmConnect’s co-founder, the curiously named Curtis Tongue, tells Fast Company that Californians residing in small apartments can earn anywhere from $40 to $50 per year for participating in once-a-week OhmHours. Larger households can bring in upwards of $200 annually just by turning off the lights and powering down appliances for an hour per week. Homes that have installed smart devices like Google's Nest Thermostat, for example, don’t have to lift a finger when an alert from OhmConnect comes through as these devices can automatically lower their consumption during times of peak demand. About a fifth of all participating households allow OhmConnect to access their smart devices.

“It’s nice pocket change,” Tongue says of the reward scheme, noting that some users view OhmHours as an opportunity to connect in a manner that doesn’t involve multiple electronic screens. “A lot of people use us as an excuse to unplug and play a board game with the family,” Tongue says.

Lights switched off By going dark and easing up on appliance usage during peak electric demand events, Californians can earn credits worth up to $200 per year. (Photo: Jen Durfey/flickr)

The power of persuasion

Californian utilities initially showed reluctance in getting involved with a service that gives customers the power to lower their household energy use when it’s needed most — and then be rewarded for doing so. But a small handful of utilities — Northern California's Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — eventually came around and now offer OhmConnect to its customers. As the service grows increasingly popular, expansions to Texas, Toronto and possibly the East Coast are reportedly in the works.

Working with the three aforementioned utilities alone, OhmConnect has helped to save the California grid a total of 100 megawatts over four years — roughly the equivalent of eliminating the use of two emergency “peaker” power plants that only kick in when demand exceeds the normal supply. (Generally, these back-up power plants are extra-polluting.) That’s a whole lot of energy saved and carbon emissions squashed.

In terms of how OhmConnect interacts with users, it wouldn’t be fair to call the company’s text alerts aggressive, alarmist or overly nagging. But the company does use the power of persuasion to full effect by tapping into the behavioral economic concept of loss aversion — that is, consumers are more likely to respond to the threat of loss than the possibility of a gain.

Fast Company describes OhmConnect’s technique: “Messages before OhmHours are somewhat guilt-inducing, making it clear that a community of energy-savers is depending on you, the user, to do your bit. Similarly, when people forget to take part, or they opt-out, a message will make it clear that they’ve let down fellow users.”

No doubt that many households, and not just those in California, are in the regular habit of reducing their energy usage without the promise of some sort of monetary reward (or a vague threat of letting other folks down). But a little nudge certainly doesn’t hurt, particularly if that nudge helps to lower the collective energy usage of thousands upon thousands of households when it’s needed most.

As Steve Reed, an OhmConnect user in San Diego, told NPR last year: "The easiest thing in the beginning is to just avoid big power usage. The big item for most people is actually their air conditioner or their heater, a stove or an oven or a microwave." He adds: "I've heard of people literally unplugging their refrigerators for the hour and just sitting in the dark and all this crazy stuff, and there's really no reason to do that."

If OhmConnect — or a service similar to it — launched in your neck of the woods, would you be game to try it out?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

This startup wants to pay you for saving electricity
With California-based OhmConnect, it's easy being green when you're also earning green.