One of the biggest questions I had entering grad school – and it’s a question that I think anyone who’s ever dedicated a bit of time or energy to environmental issues wonders about – was what medium contains the solution to these issues. Maybe it’s technology; do we need to focus on energy storage and streamlining renewables? Maybe policy; should the top priority be advocating for carbon regulations? Or is it behavior change? Are we really just all using resources irresponsibly, and that’s the root of our present environmental problems?
Of course, as you can probably guess, the answer is all three. Any one of those three tools can ruin the environment; therefore, it’s necessary to execute all three properly in order to successfully manage our natural resources and curb our contributions to climate change. The most effective technology will do no good if policy does not incentivize it or if people use it incorrectly. Environmentally-beneficial technology will never be designed if people do not dedicate some of their behavior towards addressing environmental issues.
I am interested in behavioral energy efficiency because I believe that it is an often-overlooked aspect of reducing energy use and carbon emissions. Additionally, I find it to be poorly-understood. So, I am going to use this blog post to explain to you what it’s about!
I first realized how it can be misunderstood when I was at a dinner party at my uncle’s house two years ago. His friend asked me what I was going to study in graduate school, and I explained that I’d be earning a master’s degree in environmental management, hopefully with a focus on behavioral energy efficiency.
“What?” she said, “Like just telling me to turn my thermostat down?”
“Yes,” I said, “But it’s so much more than that.”
Behavioral energy efficiency is the application of social sciences to energy use with the goal of motivating more responsible energy consumption. Commercial big players in this field are Opower and Simple Energy. Oftentimes, financial incentives are the best motivation for energy conservation. Sometimes, though, social comparisons and norms are stronger; the best predictor for whether a household owns solar panels on their property is whether their neighbor has them. People often also like to incorporate environmentalism into their identity, so providing recognition for environmental behaviors can be effective.
Opower uses social norms to motivate energy conservation. They provide bill-payers with information about whether their household energy use is above or below average compared to their neighbors. When energy use is below average, they convey that this is a positive thing by putting a smiley face next to the comparison. 🙂 This prevents individuals from adjusting back to the norm when they think they are doing better than normal, which is scientifically proven to be a natural human trend.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy also incorporates behavior change into their work. They host the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference each year, bringing together professionals and academics who focus on how to motivate sustainable resource consumption.
When implemented thoughtfully, minding social science principles about motivation and persuasion, behavior-change programs can create anywhere from a few percent savings to 10 or 20%. I hope that the field of behavioral energy efficiency will continue on its recent trend of growth in the coming years, but right now a major challenge is figuring out how to guarantee energy savings from behavior change in order to convince people to pay for behavior programs.
I find the field of behavioral energy efficiency extremely fascinating because it’s an exciting challenge to figure out how to motivate people to care for the environment. Now that you know a little bit about what behavioral energy efficiency is, look out for my next blog post, where I’ll explain how I’m incorporating it into my work at RMI!