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PicMyEnergyMix: Visual local advocacy for renewables shift [UPDATED 30 Jan 2015]

Across America, local officials are constantly making choices that set the pace and scale at which renewable energy displaces polluting sources (or not), like whether to keep an older fossil fuel plant running 20 more years, or replace it sooner with another energy option. But often these "deciders" don't hear directly from their customers or constituents on what they'd prefer for energy for their homes, and that's a barrier to clean energy progress if the large majorities who want more renewables aren't ever making that known or visible to local deciders. PicMyEnergyMix sets out to help solve that by providing electricity bill-payers a fun, easy tool to visually express and share their energy preferences so they can make a difference.

Photo of Jeffrey Cappella
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[UPDATED 1/30/15] PicMyEnergyMix is a webapp that seeks to increase the speed and scale of transition from polluting energy sources to clean energy sources by enticing, enabling, and empowering household electricity customers who prefer more clean energy to visually communicate that preference to their local utility, regulators and other local officials who will make important upcoming energy decisions. The webapp will also let people's individual "visual voice" on their desired energy mix feed into creating a "smart" graphic that auto-updates in real time and portrays community-wide energy preferences.

This is particularly for communities whose utilities still have a very heavy reliance on fossil fuel power and very little reliance on solar or wind. There are many -- from Wyoming to Alabama to Wisconsin and in-between. And if you are a household that doesn't have the means to purchase your own rooftop solar system, or doesn't have access to a community solar garden, then you are stuck with whatever fuel sources your electrical utility chooses to generate electricity for your region. PicMyEnergyMix is a (hopefully!) fun and easy and colorful non-wonky way for these households to take an interest and make a difference.

Here's how it works. There’s a bit of kindergarden kid in all of us that likes to color and paint, right? And most people will care more about their own home than the industry level. So instead of giving you a pie chart or data table of your utility’s energy mix, you get to see a colored-in home or apartment building showing your utility's energy mix for your home. If your utility uses 60% coal and 8% solar, then more than half of "your home" picture is going to be painted black for coal -- and just a tiny bit will be yellow for solar. Then, you get to use your touch screen or mouse to drag sliders and repaint your picture more to your liking (e.g. maybe you'd prefer less coal and more solar and wind -- we know from polling that many do!). Finaly, the take-action part: you learn about an energy decision coming up that will affect your utility’s fuel mix, like a resource planning decision or a renewable energy standard or other regulation, and you can choose to share your 'current' vs. 'desired' home energy mix pics with the relevant decision-makers via email or twitter to help ensure that your energy preferences are seen and heard.
To encourage others, you can post your pics right to your Facebook page. Since images are great for getting engagement on social media, this image-generation tool offers the promise of generating shares and action that way. And of course, groups could also decide to boost efforts with some additional paid promotion too. To help extend the “shelf-life” of this tool and extend its potential influence, the site will also provide a summary graphic that automatically aggregates everyone’s pictures in real-time so it could be interesting to check back and see how it’s looking and changing over time. At first, each PicMyEnergyMix site would be local, a version that’s stand-alone for a particular utility. But eventually it could grow more complex by enabling comparison of aggregate energy mix pics across utilities and states.

Based on some great feedback from Shuting Zeng at Greenfographic encouraging more expansive thinking about what additional activity people who participate in PicMyEnergyMix could do, I'm now imagining networking possibilities the site could provide. For example, it could provide links to a site like Greenfographic where the visitor could go to take another visual action related to clean energy. It could create an option for PicMyEnergyMix users to "find" each other to correspond offline. Certainly it will provide the opportunity to sign up to receive receive onoing information from local clean energy groups on the local energy decisions at hand.

I've talked about PicMyEnergyMix with organizations in different states that work to influence local energy decisions and they're excited about PicMyEnergyMix because it's such a different kind of 'ask' than the typical "sign a petition" or "send an email." Those can feel overused or too one-sided or "political" to attract broader community participation beyond a usual advocacy base. PicMyEnergyMix overcomes this barrier by being a very different kind of experience -- nobody is telling you "sign this already-written petition expressing this particular point of view." Instead, it's you, the participant, who is in charge -- and you can use the tool to communicate whatever energy preference you want! You see a post from a friend or a sponsored post on on your facebook news feed, you get interested and curious to see your own current home energy mix pic, and then have fun making your own better version and sharing it. The end result is that decision-makers who typically never hear from the vast majority of electricity bill-payers start to hear from many more -- and see the community preference for more clean energy. Making that visible rather than hidden creates the pressure for decisions to get more in sync with community priorities.

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

[UPDATED 1/30/15] There are many examples of communities that could benefit from this tool, and local public health, clean energy, community and environmental organizations that could help deploy it. For example, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the utility that provides electricity to most residents gets more than 60% of its power from coal-burning power plants and only about 10% from solar and wind. According to opinion surveys, residents in Salt Lake City would like to encourage more use of clean energy and less coal and want their utility to put greater emphasis on sources that don't cause pollution. So will the utility change accordingly? To what degree? Over what time frame? The answers to those questions may be influenced by the degree to which there is or isn't community appetite and demand for clean energy communicated visibly. Opinion polls don't matter if the issue isn't important enough for people to take an interest in and participate in. That's where PicMyEnergyMix comes in! It facilitates just that, and groups such as HEAL Utah (a public health group) are interested to help encourage participation in it. I mention Salt Lake City by way of illustration. The situation is the same in many other cities and states.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

[UPDATED 1/30/15] Many people don't think about, or know much about, where there power comes from. Power plants are often not nearby and remain unseen. Utilities often don't make information readily available about how much they're using coal vs. gas vs. other sources. So one of the main ways PicMyEnergyMix helps change people's relationship to energy is by enticing people to think about it and reflect on whether they're actually getting the kind of energy they want (and are paying for). The enticing is done by creating a user-friendly, interactive, visual and personal way of providing this education, and offering an advocacy and social sharing component so there's more of a payoff than just education. A key step to changing the energy landscape to include greater renewables is moving energy issues forward from the "back burner" for consumers to something they think about and see how they can easily and enjoyably have a voice in.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

[UPDATED 1/30/15] PicMyEnergyMix lends itself perfectly to trying out in just one or two cities or states to start with. So, for example, a version of the webapp would be done for just the utility that serves people in Salt Lake City -- and the site would just be promoted to Salt Lake City residents to participate. Then, if it's successful, versions could be created for many other communities. Eventually, these could even be all integrated together such that users could check out and compare and contrast what the current vs. desired energy mix pics look like across state lines or for different utilities. That could even create some healthy competition!

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

This is a visual project so of course the visuals on the site will really matter. The pictures I've uploaded are just rough mock-ups by a non-designer, so this will really benefit from much better graphics and art advice from any and all with those skills. There are questions too about whether to just have the picture be an icon-style house or apartment with color wash over it, or whether to potentially enable people to upload a photo of their own home that gets colored in by the site? Of course, want to keep the number of steps down to a minimum to encourage participation... could be something to test? Promotional ideas beyond the usual? Take a tablet door to door for people to use (more fun than signing a petition)? Have a few ipads at a table at events for people to use the tool? Would media be interested?

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • A combination of various types of renewable energy

This idea emerged from:

  • An Individual


Join the conversation:

Photo of Monika Shankar

Hi Jeffrey, your proposed project is really coming together! Your updates, coupled with the exchanges below in the comment section, are really adding some substantive refinement to the overall concept. One question I have is around partnerships. Some commenters have mentioned trying to reach out to local progressive utility companies to pilot the project. What about engaging a local government in this project also? I feel like cities across the country are increasingly making data accessible to its residents in order to catalyze innovative solutions to local problems (for example: energy use). I recently saw a pretty interesting presentation by an organization called Code for America (, which builds open source technology and organizes networks of people in order to make government services simple and easy to use. The online tools they create are pretty innovative and interactive. Perhaps you could draw inspiration from some of their case studies. Looking forward to seeing this project evolve!

Photo of Jeffrey Cappella

Hi Monika, I very much like the idea of figuring out ways to connect people who use and participate in PicMyEnergyMix to local actionable steps they can take beyond the action they will have taken by sharing their pics from the web app with local officials. Thanks for sharing the codeforamerica link - I'll check it out!

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