Time to change habits, as well as light bulbs?

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By Elisa Wood

November 16, 2010

We are 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 someone tried to sell you on using more electricity?

I cannot think of a single commercial that encourages us to plug-in, even though electricity is the chief product of 3,000 utilities in the United States.

This speaks to how easy it is to access and use electric energy; its relative cheapness, invisibility, and integral role in daily life. No need exists for utilities to market electricity; we devour electrons blindly.

So how do you 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 consumers to save energy is as much a people 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. The programs include: building operator certification, in-home energy monitoring, media messaging, keeping up with the Jones emotional pressure, ATM-like energy purchasing, in-home energy displays, employer cheerleading, corporate energy management, green recognition, and feebates – fees or rebates for cars based on their energy efficiency.

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.

The report is available here. http://www.aceee.org/research-report/e108

Elisa Wood is co-author of “Energy Efficiency Incentives for Businesses 2010: Eastern States,” available at www.realenergywriters.com.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Elisa,
    Another superbly written, insightful article. I had just replied to a question on my blog, what is the reason “energy efficiency” doesn’t appear as interesting as solar or wind power? My answer was that energy efficiency is not as glamorous as solar or wind alternative/renewable energy. I had another comment along the lines of your article, “habit”. It definitely helped open my eyes a little wider. Thanks, Tim Smith

  2. Thanks from ACEEE for writing about our new report.

    On a personal note, have you heard of Reddy Kilowatt? This cartoon character was before my time. He was used to convince people regarding the benefits of installing and using electricity. Hard to believe that was ever necessary!

  3. Elisa, The first part of the problem is to provide mass information. As a HERS Rater, I do many energy audits. What do I get asked about on energy efficient items in a home? Windows, Computers on 24/7; Home Entertainment Systems left on 24/7; new cool roofs; energy management software; smart meters; CFLs.

    What don’t I get asked about, insulation, air sealing, right sized equipment. — Unless this consumer has educated themselves.

    Where do the get this? Look at the Energy Savers Blog on DOE. Look at the title to your article. How long can you watch TV and not see someone telling you new windows will save you 20 – 40% on your utility bills.

    Until we start talking about the major energy use in a home, space heating and space cooling; Until we start changing how things work, instead of how people work; we will not make much progress.

    Changing how people work is conservation; Changing how things work is efficiency. Doing a manual thermostat setback is conserving and requires people to change. Installing and programming a digital setback thermostat is changing how things work.