01 March 2010

Minimizing individual water consumption

As many of you know, I am not keen on command and control regulations of water use. I advocate higher prices to give people an incentive to use less. (I will cover the role of customs, norms and self-control in the next few days.)

A central problem with my proposal -- some water for free, pay for more -- is that it's based on a per capita allocation of water. Since most water utilities do not know how many people live at a given meter, it's hard to establish per capita allocations and pricing.

I was talking to some Australians who mentioned that their water bills show their use and gave a calculation of per capita consumption as if they had 2, 3 or 4 people in the household.

This calculation helps people understand how well they are doing at pursuing a target of 155 liters/capita/day (41 gallons/c/d). They are currently at 174 lcd.

Now it's clear that any water district can use this method to help their customers help themselves,* but it can be leveraged for use in a per capita allocation/billing system, if you add a little twist.

So here's how it works:
  1. Ask people to declare the number of people at their address (meter).

  2. Allocate some cheap water for each individual, and then charge more for use above that use; see this post for more.

  3. Give them a bill that shows their use per individual, given the number of people they have declared.

  4. (The twist) Also give them the use, number of people, and use per capita for 10-20 neighbors around them. This latter bit of information will create a common knowledge of how many are using how much, which will put pressure (social pressure) to both reduce overall consumption as well as honestly declare the number of household members. Although some people may complain that it's invasive, I do not agree. Most water conservation campaigns focus on "doing your part for the community," and most people do not mind their neighbors knowing how many people live in the house.
Bottom Line: Water conservation takes effort, and we need to be given reasons to exert it -- financial and social incentives provide good reasons.

* As opposed to telling people that they should use 10 or 20 gallons less, which is not only meaningless to the average person, but also wrong in terms of asking water wasters and water misers to use the same amount LESS, from a much-greater number.

11 comments:

  1. Rebates too can be fun & effective.

    To encourage meters, it would be entertaining ( you can't really teach adults, you can only entertain them) to offer a quarterly REBATE in dollars for using only a certain amount of water per capita. Obviously, an accurate meter and number of persons subject to each meter would be absolutely necessary in order to participate in the rebate program.

    It would work. It would be rather like your neighbor winning the easy/guaranteed lottery and RECEIVING a cash award and because you resisted, you didn't get any cash reward !

    Note: It would be important to send the actual cash (check) award, not a credit on their water bill !

    Now, what do you want done with the water saved ?

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  2. I like that idea, if they want us to police our neighbors and rat them out to the DWP to make sure they aren't watering their lawns on "no watering days", then what's wrong with knowing their water usage.

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  3. What keeps from from declaring 9 residents instead of the actual 3?

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  4. David, Jay asks a really good question. Especially for utility that has some negative history for using allocations & penalties in the past. If customers have a bad feeling that the data will be used for an allocation, they may overstate the household residents. How to deal with this problem?

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  5. My caveat: If people see that their neighbors are using more water than them, they might say "well if they get away with it, why can't I" - only if the additional use is that much higher so that they are truly punished budget wise for "wasting" or "overconsuming" water and therefore incentivized to save because they are saving that much more money than their neighbors.
    I can also see neighborhood councils petitioning to get exemptions for swimming pools :-P

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  6. whoops, that should read:
    only if the additional use is that much higher so that they are truly punished budget wise for "wasting" or "overconsuming" water (and therefore incentivized to save because they are saving that much more money than their neighbors) might such an idea work.

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  7. @Watersource -- Right! Cash!

    @TayTay -- water usage puts peer pressure to "use less than your neighbor" -- I don't care about what it's used for or when.

    @Jay -- your neighbors will report your 9 as false (and there are penalties for overclaiming exemptions, a la IRS). If you think that's "unfair," then you question ANY and ALL welfare systems that are directed at individuals.

    @Ben -- the numbers WOULD be used for allocation (as I said in OP), i.e., block width.

    @mirki2 -- yes, waste would attract penalty charges on water bills. (Agreed on pools; listen to my what with Mike Young in the next few weeks...)

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  8. David,

    Assuming you weren't be fecicious and actually liked my cash reward thought, I really would like for you answer my honest question:

    What do you want to do with the water that is proven to be saved ?

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  9. @WS -- "saved" water is NOT there, it's in excess of supply. What I want is that supply and demand are equal, unlike the case in shortages...

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  10. David,
    "@Jay -- your neighbors will report your 9 as false (and there are penalties for overclaiming exemptions, a la IRS). If you think that's "unfair," then you question ANY and ALL welfare systems that are directed at individuals."

    You're putting words in my mouth. I'm totally down with a water market. I don't know why you're getting after me like that.

    I just pointed out what I thought was a flaw in hopes of furthering the conversation.

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  11. @Jay -- whoops! Sorry. I thought that I was clear on the assumption that some people would lie, which was what you were apparently pointing out as an oversight. My bad.

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