San Antonio’s municipally owned utilities are banking on the fact that you don’t like coming in second to your neighbors — and it appears they’re right.

While energy and water conservation have long been goals for CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System, the utilities have found in recent years that “gamifying” conservation by giving residents information on their neighbors’ use has led to slight increases in conservation.

“Utilities in general are going through a lot of different gamification components,” said Jonathan Tijerina, CPS Energy’s vice president of enterprise risk and development. “It really utilizes that fun, competitive aspect.”

Gamification refers to applying game-design elements and game principles to non-game contexts in an effort to motivate human behavior. It’s a strategy that’s grown increasingly popular in recent years due to smartphones and apps, but it’s been around for decades, said Richard Landers, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert on gamification, machine learning, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

A graph shows a San Antonio Water System customer how much water they are using in their home compared other households.
This Home Water Report shows a SAWS customer how much water they are using in their home compared to other households. Credit: Courtesy / SAWS

“What these apps mostly do is really what’s called goal setting,” Landers said. “Just by giving somebody a goal, you’re basically saying, ‘I think you can do this, I believe you are capable of this,’ and so it tells people that this is something that they can realistically shoot for that won’t be wasted effort.”

Whether it’s getting in 10,000 steps a day, eating a set amount of calories per day, or using so many gallons of water per day, gamifying an experience makes it feel more fun to accomplish, Landers said.

CPS Energy and SAWS have both gamified energy and water conservation for a select number of customers by giving them reports of how their use compares to their neighbors.

A graph shows a CPS Energy customer how much energy they are using in their home compared other households.
This is one of CPS Energy’s customer-comparison messages. Allowing customers to compare their electric and water use with that of their neighbors has helped both utilities successfully encourage conservation. Credit: Courtesy / CPS Energy

CPS Energy’s My Energy Portal, where customers can compare their bills to those of their neighbors, first became available as the utility started installing smart meters in 2014, Tijerina said. All customers can now see how their use compares to that of their neighbors.

SAWS rolled out its Water Smart reports for select customers about five years ago and is now in the process of expanding the program’s reach, said Karen Guz, SAWS’ vice president of water conservation.

CPS Energy estimates that gamifying conservation saved the utility roughly 18 megawatts last year, Tijerina said. That’s enough electricity to power roughly 3,600 homes on a hot summer day. SAWS also found residents who receive the Water Smart reports tended to decrease water use by up to 5% per month compared to those not receiving these reports, Guz said.

Human nature drives people to both want to stand out and fit in, Landers said.

This is why comparing someone’s energy or water use to their neighbor’s works — people will want both to fall in line with those around them, or to be even better, he said.

SAWS shows residents both the average water use in their neighborhood and the average water use in homes similar to their own, Guz said.

The utility has recently expanded its program, sending reports to about 200,000 customers, up from 60,000.

“Very soon we will have that feature for every account that we have an email for,” Guz said.

In 2019, CPS Energy expanded its use of gamification with the creation of its Power Player program, in which participants try to conserve more power than their neighbors or improve their rankings among 100 similar households on peak demand days. They get a report on how they did during the peak event. The program has been effective at helping decrease energy use during peak times, Tijerina said.

He participates in the program and said he finds it quite entertaining.

“If I’m not in the Top 50, I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do my part,'” he said. The utility plans to extend Power Player by at least 40,000 customers this summer, Tijerina said. “With the amount of growth we’ve seen in the community, there are just more people eligible.”

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Karen Guz’s job title.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.