“Neigh­bors” in­volved in Xcel pro­gram can be as far as 2 miles from each other.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By David Migoya

When cus­tomers re­ceive let­ters from Xcel En­ergy com­par­ing their ef­fi­ciency to neigh­bors, Xcel isn’t nec­es­sar­ily talk­ing about the folks on your block. And, does any­one ever get told they are more ef­fi­cient than their “neigh­bors?”

Year after year, Xcel En­ergy has told Alessia Frutchey she has been less en­ergy-ef­fi­cient than her neigh­bors.

So, the Boul­der County res­i­dent did what she thought was ex­pected of her: She tried to cut back.

“I have two small kids who leave the lights on all the time, so I’m chas­ing them around the house turn­ing off lights,” she said. “This sum­mer I un­plugged a lot of things be­fore leav­ing on va­ca­tion. I nor­mally wouldn’t do that, but be­cause of the re­port I fig­ured I should.”

Frutchey is one of 450,000 Xcel cus­tomers in Colorado who reg­u­larly re­ceive an e-mail or let­ter com­par­ing their en­ergy us­age to their neigh­bors. Xcel has 1.4 mil­lion elec­tric cus­tomers in Colorado.

Xcel says the no­tices go out to more ef­fi­cient and less ef­fi­cient cus­tomers alike. The Den­ver Post was able only to find the lat­ter.

“I get these no­ti­fi­ca­tions con­stantly,” said Diana Oppy of Den­ver, whose lat­est re­port showed she used 33 per­cent more en­ergy than her neigh­bors. “So much in fact we made our land­lord send out an elec­tri­cian to see if we had some­thing caus­ing the high en­ergy us­age. They found noth­ing.”

Xcel does not iden­tify neigh­bors in the no­tices, for pri­vacy rea­sons.

“I just as­sumed they were my neigh­bors on my street com­pared to the whole neigh­bor­hood,” Frutchey said.

Xcel says the vol­un­tary pro­gram — they choose you first and it’s up to you to opt out, as 5,500 al­ready have — be­gan as a pi­lot pro­gram in Colorado in 2011 with just 50,000 par­tic­i­pants. It be­came full-blown in 2015.

“The real pur­pose of the pro­gram is to get cus­tomers think­ing about their en­ergy use,” Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said.

For Ni­cole St­ef­fani, how­ever, it’s more of Xcel wag­ging its fin­ger at her.

“I joke with my co-work­ers that “It’s that time of the month where Xcel En­ergy wants to shame me for my en­ergy us­age,’ ” she mused.

Stutz said it has gen­er­ated real re­sults, though Xcel can’t say what per­cent­age of those who re­ceive the no­tices are among the ef­fi­cient neigh­bors or are shown us­ing too much.

“The en­ergy sav­ings varies by in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers, but cur­rently av­er­ages 2 per­cent per month for elec­tric­ity and 0.6 of a per­cent per month for nat­u­ral gas,” Stutz said. “In 2015, the pro­gram gen­er­ated 26.8 mil­lion kilo­watt-hours and 101,200 dekatherms in sav­ings.”

That sounds like a lot, but Zachary Cates says he’s usu­ally told that doesn’t in­clude him.

“I’m not sure what it amounts to,

but we fre­quently re­ceive cor­re­spon­dence from Xcel say­ing we use about 118 per­cent more than our neigh­bors,” Cates said. “My wife and I have al­ways thought it was bunk.”

That’s be­cause sev­eral peo­ple say they can’t fig­ure out which neigh­bors Xcel is talk­ing about. Most think it’s the house next door, only to find out they, too, have got­ten no­tices say­ing they’re among those less ef­fi­cient.

“I have ac­tu­ally chat­ted with a cou­ple of neigh­bors and they said that their state­ments tell them that they’re high,” said Kate Counter of Den­ver. “Doesn’t make sense.”

Your “neigh­bors,” ac­cord­ing to Xcel, are ac­tu­ally a lot far­ther from you than you think, some as far as 2 miles away.

That’s con­fus­ing, said Claire John­stone.

“There are sev­eral much smaller homes sur­round­ing us, so I have no idea if they are com­par­ing our 2,200square-foot home to a 600square-foot home, or if they’re pit­ting us against the other town­homes in our com­mu­nity,” she said. “Our bills haven’t been truly astro­nom­i­cal, save for the ex­pected in­crease in the sum­mer, so I just shrug them off.”

It all comes down to an al­go­rithm that ran­domly se­lects who gets com­pared to whom, and there’s no guar­an­tee it’s the same ones ev­ery time.

“The neigh­bor com­par­i­son typ­i­cally uses 100 sim­i­lar cus­tomers lo­cated in the near vicin­ity of the cus­tomer re­ceiv­ing the re­port,” Stutz said. “It is not nec­es­sar­ily an im­me­di­ate neigh­bor next door or across the street.”

Sim­i­lar cus­tomers are those with sim­i­lar-sized homes, heat type and dwelling, such as sin­gle-fam­ily res­i­dences, Stutz ex­plained.

But some other fac­tors aren’t in­cluded, such as how many peo­ple live in the house, or the kind of “ex­tras” in a home such as a Jacuzzi or hot tub.

“Cus­tomers who re­ceive the re­ports con­serve be­tween 1.5 and 3 per­cent com­pared to house­holds that do not re­ceive the re­ports,” say the folks at En­ergy Ef­fi­ciency Busi­ness in Golden, which ad­vo­cated for their use in Colorado. “These pro­grams have been run by more than 100 util­i­ties in nearly a dozen coun­tries since 2007. Util­ity cus­tomers have saved more than $1.4 bil­lion in bills over that time pe­riod.”

Still, Matthew Dam­ico scratches his head ev­ery time the us­age re­port shows up.

“I live with my wife and baby in an 1,100-square-foot apart­ment and ev­ery month we blow our neigh­bors’ doors off in com­par­i­son to en­ergy used; it’s ter­ri­ble,” he said. “We see the bill and are puz­zled ev­ery month. This has been go­ing on a while now, too. I was un­der the im­pres­sion that the ap­pli­ances were crappy and ate more power and it was just some­thing we live with.”

Xcel says it will do an en­ergy-use anal­y­sis on re­quest, and en­cour­age cus­tomers to up­date their us­age at the util­ity’s web­site.

Some­times, though, the con­ser­va­tion bug rubs off.

“I’m up­stairs putting away my 4-year-old’s clothes and he stomped into his room and said, ‘Mom! I was just turn­ing off lights!’ ” Frutchey said. “So there you have it; it’s rub­bing off on ev­ery­one.”

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