ENERGY-EFFICIENCY REPORTS FROM XCEL QUESTIONED
“Neighbors” involved in Xcel program can be as far as 2 miles from each other.
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.”