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Positive Energy: An interview with Catherine Potter

I recently had the chance to speak with Catherine Potter, Manager of Consumer Content at Positive Energy.

Matthew Benson:  What is Positive Energy?

Catherine Potter:  Every energy utility faces a fundamental challenge of balancing supply with demand.  They can add more capacity or they can reduce demand to make the math work.  We help utilities reduce demand in the residential sector, by providing tools and ideas that encourage and enable consumers to reduce energy use.  In this way, utilities can look at us as an efficiency power plant.

Our core product is the Home Energy Report.  Our software generates a customized report for each home. Each report compares the consumer’s energy use to similar nearby homes.  For the first time, residential customers are able to see their home’s energy use in the context of other homes’ energy use.  The foundation of this product is the research on behavior change from one of our board members, Robert Cialdini.  His research shows that when users see their own behavior in the context of what their neighbors are doing, they are more motivated to make a change.

As a complement to our Home Energy Report, we also offer a website that has more detailed advice on how to reduce home energy use.  The website also offers people a chance to interact with other members of their community, sharing ideas and tips with each other on energy efficiency.

MB: Who are your customers and how do they benefit?

CP:  Our utility clients benefit by reducing demand.  They may be able to delay or avoid adding a new plant, which is a substantial investment.  In many states there are financial incentives built into utility rate structures that provide plenty of reasons for utilities to be excited about this.  This phenomenon is called decoupling – that is, the decoupling of sales volume from profits.  There is a lot of momentum behind energy efficiency these days.  For example, there are funds in the economic stimulus package focused on energy efficiency.

I should also mention that in a completely deregulated state, like Texas, our value proposition for utilities is that we will help their customers save money and the utilities can use that as part of an acquisition strategy.

For end users, the benefit is that they are saving money on utility bills.  While energy utilities have been promoting efficiency for decades, our product is the first to offer contextual information in a way that truly motivates users to act.  We have set up control groups to compare those who receive our products to those who are not and on average we have seen a 2% energy reduction across the whole pilot group so far, and certain homes save more.  On a cost per energy unit basis, we do extremely well.

MB:  If a home-owner is already using less energy than their neighbors, what type of behavior does their home energy report encourage?

CP:  For those using the least amount of energy, we give them positive reinforcement and applaud them.  In fact, we tell them that they fall into the most efficient 20% of homes.  That group is the 20% of homes who are using the least energy compared to their peers.  We want to encourage them to stay in that group.  At the same time, for those consumers who have average energy usage compared to their peers, we show what it will take to get into the more efficient group.

MB:  How did you get involved and what is your role with Positive Energy?

CP:  I have a background in energy policy and business, so this was a good fit for me.  I looked at a lot of energy companies.  A big reason why I came to Positive Energy is the talented team.  I think it is a great, growing industry, but what impressed me about Positive Energy in particular is the management team.  The leaders have a solid experience base that has propelled us forward and leads to great results for us.

I am part of the product management team.  I focus on the consumer content and communications. As part of this, I ensure we have a solid fact base behind our energy efficiency recommendations. I then work to package information in a way that is accessible and helpful to consumers.  Another important piece of what I do is targeting recommendations and messages to the right customers.  For instance, if you are a pool owner or a renter, certain things are going to be more relevant to you than others. We segment customers so that our materials will be targeted and therefore effective.

MB:  One thing that isn’t clear to me is whether Positive Energy requires smart meters or more contemporary metering technology in order to provide value.

CP:  One of the strengths of the Positive Energy business model is that we can work with any infrastructure.  We use whatever energy data our utility clients have.  Meters that are read monthly, daily meters, 15 min. meters – all of these can be accommodated.  The granularity of the data can make it more interesting, but valuable context can be provided even at a monthly level.  That’s why our products are already doing well in the marketplace today; only about 5% of homes currently have some type of advanced meters, so that market is still very new.

MB:  How has the economy influenced things for you?

CP:  No matter what the economy is, people want to save money.  With the current climate, people are especially focused on it.  Generally, energy prices are trending upward, so we don’t see opportunities to help consumers and utilities going away.

In terms of financing, just as the market was about to take a beating we were successful in raising a round of venture funding.  So we are fortunate to be in a position where we do not need to raise any more capital.

MB:  I noticed that Positive Energy has a number of jobs posted on the CleanTechies job board.  What else might be interesting to someone considering Positive Energy as a career option?

CP:  I think Positive Energy would appeal to people interested in a smaller, entrepreneurial setting.  We are a little over 30 people now.  We are growing very quickly – our staff, our clients and our product feature set.  It’s a very exciting time to work here.

I already mentioned how great our team is.  One thing I like about working here is that not only is the team incredibly talented, we are also down to earth and we have fun working together.  We do weekly lunches and occasional social outings to keep our culture going strong.

Also, the location is great. Our headquarters is in Arlington, VA across the river from Washington, D.C. We have a beautiful view and it’s an easy commute no matter where you live in the area. We are a block from the Metro (public transportation) and several people here bike into the office most of the year, given the nice climate we have.  I relocated from San Francisco, CA to take this job and I’m very happy about my decision.

MB:  Any advice for an applicant?

CP:  Spend some time learning about the industry, because there are nuances in the utility space.  Also, as a software company, we value experience in that space.  We look for a solid expertise in the role and function, and at the same time we look for versatility.

MB:  What is next for Positive Energy?  Is Positive Energy looking to expand beyond energy related activities, like water for instance?

Right now we work with energy utility companies of all types, including municipal and investor-owned.  Some of our clients offer electricity service, some offer natural gas service and some offer both.  Water could be an interesting area.  One thing to keep in mind is that the energy utility sector is so large that we have a significant runway for growth.

We talk with behavior change experts in other industries like personal health and wellness.  It turns out there are many potential applications of behavioral science.  But like I said, there is such an opportunity to address the energy space, that right now we are very focused on that market.

Catherine Potter’s bio

Catherine Potter joined Positive Energy as Manager of Consumer Content in July 2008.  Catherine has a background in energy policy and business strategy.  She served as an adviser to a U.S. Senator on energy and environmental policy, including standards for automobile fuel economy and appliance efficiency.   Also she worked as a Consultant at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, on a range of projects, including growth strategy for technology and telecommunications clients.  She holds an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she graduated in the top 10% of her class, and a BA from the University of Chicago.

Catherine on Linkedin

Positive Energy