It may be time to change habits, as well as light bulbs

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

CFL bulbDay in day out we are all bombarded daily by advertisements selling us soft drinks, pharmaceuticals, cars, insurance, junk food, teeth whitener, diet programs, and on and on. But when was the last time that someone did try to sell you using more electricity?

I do not think that there is a single commercial anywhere that encourages us to plug-in, to by more electricity, even though electricity is the chief product of 3,000 utilities in the United States, and countless others around the globe.

This should show us how easy it is to access and use electric energy; its relative cheapness, though many domestic users would tell us certainly something as to the high costs in many parts of the United States, its invisibility, and its integral role in daily life. No need exists for utilities to market electricity; we devour electrons blindly. The only thing you will find in deregulated energy markets such as now in Britain is that the companies fall over themselves to try and have you sign up with them.

So how can we convince people to conserve something that they use so much, yet hardly even notice they buy?

Behavioral science may hold the answers, as pointed out in a new report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, “Visible and Concrete Savings: Case Studies of Effective Behavioral Approaches to Improving Customer Energy Efficiency.”

Getting people to save energy is as much a behavioral and psychological problem as a technology problem. Or as the report puts it: “To achieve greater energy savings through energy efficiency, we need to design and build programs that change habits as well as light bulbs.”

The report highlights 10 energy efficiency programs that have done so and what do these programs tell us about human behavior when it comes to energy efficiency? For one thing, we need to see how much energy we use, clearly displayed in our homes as we use it. And we need proof – true measurement and verification – that our efforts to conserve pay off. Such data also encourages political support for efficiency programs.

The report finds we worry about social norms – if we learn our neighbors save more energy than we do, we try harder. And believe it or not, money doesn’t really motivate us very much. Or at least we do not always make rational economic decisions. We are more apt to act based on values, curiosity, self-esteem, and other non-economic motivators. When money is used as an incentive, bonuses need to be large and immediate, not spread out over time.

Especially in economic difficult times such as the one in which we find ourselves in the early part of the 21st century with the Great Recession not as yet gone way, saving money is a prime motivator.

Reducing energy consumption by small steps already can have real tangible benefits without you even feeling any difference in your life.

However, seeing the result of savings displayed such as when energy efficient devices are employed rather than, say, the old fridge that has been replaced, or when you actually do turn off all the lights that are not in use, and such makes a great difference and can be a great incentive.

Hanging more clothes out to dry rather than tossing every load into the dryer and you save even more energy. And if it is not possible to dry outdoors on the line, such as in winter, than dry the clothes, after using the spinner on the washing machine a few more extra times, over the radiators or by the stove, and you will see even more savings. Our ancestors did that too. Not the savings bit but the drying by the stove one.

The majority of us have a profit motive. Everyone, probably. And if we appeal to it responsibly and effectively folks will become motivated.

The report is available here.

© 2010

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