Electric utilities operated under a rarified business model for decades. Their customers were captive so they rarely had to think about what motivated them to buy. New government energy efficiency mandates have changed that, and done so with an ironic twist. Now utilities must figure how to get their customers to refrain from buying.

It’s not easy persuading people to stop using something they like as much as electricity. But behavioral science is coming to the rescue – or at least trying to – as was apparent at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference held in Washington, DC, November 29 through December 2.  About 650 people attended, many of them scientists, university researchers and college students, ready to tackle energy efficiency’s biggest hurdle: human nature.

“The challenge that we have is not just to fix the buildings; we have to fix the people who live work and play in those buildings. We have to fix us,” said Brian Keane, of SmartPower.

While behavioral scientists and economists have only begun their work, it’s already clear that utilities and government programs approach energy efficiency wrongheaded. They tend to talk about why energy efficiency is good for them, not the customer, why it makes the electricity grid function better or achieves government’s environmental goals.

The makers of Tide laundry detergent don’t tell customers they should buy the product because it makes the company lots of money, pointed out Lisa Skumatz, a Colorado-based economist. If the energy industry continues to sell energy efficiency as good for utilities, good for the environment, good for government, it will reach only a very narrow audience.

Utilities also must stop listening to what people say and instead focus on what they mean. But how do you do that? Jane Hummer of Navigant Consulting demonstrated how to analyze comments people post online to get at what they really think. “Consumers are increasingly narrating all aspects of their lives online,” creating “a free focus group that you can analyze at your leisure,” she said.

Don’t take what they say online at face value – after all many hide behind anonymity and therefore tend to speak in extremes – but “get at the underlying sentiment,” she said.

Using a spreadsheet and key word search, she analyzed comments posted from articles about smart meters in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. In some states, consumers oppose smart meters, fearing they harm health and impinge on a homeowner’s privacy.  Funny thing about the privacy concerns…some of the people who write that they are worried about privacy in the same post reveal details of their lives on line: their political affiliation, where they live, what they do. So is privacy really their concern?

Hummer pointed out that utilities can use the information gleaned from analyzing online comments to hone media campaigns and pre-empt hyperbolic hysteria. If consumers say they worry that smart meters may subject their children to radiation, a utility might launch a campaign about the health dangers of coal-fired plants and explain how smart meters lead to plant retirements.

Sometimes achieving better energy efficiency is just a matter of explaining to people what they should do – in good, clear language. Alan Meier, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,  analyzes what he calls “folk labels,” instructions on how to operate lighting and appliances, sometimes provided by the manufacturer and other times scribbled by well-meaning building occupants trying to explain light switches. What he has found is a mass of confusion. “We need to come up with some standardization soon,” he said.

Will the behavioral scientists succeed in a world where consumers rarely think about electricity? They are optimistic. Some point to the decline in cigarette smoking as an analogy; it’s no coincidence that smoking fell 20% from 1998 to 2005. The behavioral scientists were at work.

For more information on the frontier of energy and behavioral science, listen to Energy Efficiency Market’s free podcast, “What motivates consumers to use less energy,” with Susan Mazur-Stommen, director of the Behavior and Human Dimensions Program for theAmerican Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which sponsored last week’s conference along with the California Institute for Energy and Environment  at the University of California and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.


Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work can be found atwww.RealEnergyWriters.com

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Comment by David Eggleton on December 31, 2011 at 10:23am

There's dealing with great numbers of faceless consumers and there's dealing with households.  Elisa wrote about the former and most comments are about the latter.

Those who commented might find the 1000 Home Challenge interesting and relevant.  Come join the group on this site!

Comment by Bruce Navin on December 22, 2011 at 5:15pm

After I posted my first remark, I thought I would check to see a percentage of Americans who are concerned with Global Warming, and found this in 2 minutes flat: 

 "In response to one key question, 48% of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question."



Why cut our market potential by 48%? I believe that we should move our focus as an industry out of the political arena and into the commercial realm-after all, we are in business. I would be willing to bet that people buy energy efficient cars much more to save their own money than to appease environmental concerns. If your area is big on global warming, good-use it as a sales tool. But in national conversations, we will achieve higher sales (that is to say, more energy efficient homes and a cleaner environment) by focusing on the needs and wants and convenience of the "selfish" consumer. Make it cool to have a tight house-a healthy home- a convenient home; a place with smart power strips and motion sensors for light switches, and all of the other gadgets that we can point to that will help monitor energy and save them money.

Comment by Bruce Navin on December 22, 2011 at 4:52pm

Living in a pretty conservative region of the country, I know that if you a.) tell people their behavior is a problem, b.) try scare tactics like talking about the dangers of coal (especially in Pennsylvania) and c.) focus on climate change, then you are going to be viewed with suspicion. This country is very politically charged-and divided at this stage of history. I believe the focus should be less political and more focused on things that Americans universally care about.

-Their own Comfort. Talk about a less drafty house.

- Their own Health. Talk about a cleaner home.

- Their own Expense. Talk about simplified solutions that will save money to do other things including home improvements, vacations, etc. Instead of demanding that someone unplug their cable box-discuss the convenience of smart power strips, etc.

Use the time tested method. How do you engage someone in conversation? Simple-you ask about what they care about most-themselves. Look at it from the standpoint of a salesman, not a regulator. Sell the customer a better life from their perspective. Don't tell them what they must do to protect the planet. The cleaner environment will come if you sell them a better life through your service.

Comment by Kent Mitchell on December 22, 2011 at 12:01pm

Good points in this blog!  Occupants need more knowledge yet many are reluctant to get it on their own.   Unless it is forced or mandated on them they would like to not have any changes in their lives.  Some will be proactive on saving energy and embracing green building practices but for most we will have to do it for them... It is only after an efficient product or practice is used by them, they then realize it is for their benefit! 

Comment by Dennis McCarthy on December 22, 2011 at 11:55am

As someone who has halved our family's kW usage I can strongly relate to this


Its all about logical energy use - when I help people reduce their consumption

I highlight their illogical use patterns, (+ insist they fix that) then persuade them

to switch to using SSL ( led lighting) then get them to seal their air ducts. A party

tending to these three waste situautions will always see lower consumption of

kW usage- unless they take up the hobby of using an electric arc welder.

But when doing this I found if done with sanctimony it turns people off -

but when handled as a math  and/or science proposition it tends to empower

people. Whatever it takes- I am 100% in favor of every structure globally

getting the results- HALVE YOUR  kW consumption in 2012  - Just make it happen !

Start within your home & start improving things- is your TV/ cable/ gaming equipt plugged

in while you're sleeping ? If so why- where's the benefit, what's the logic - just unplugging

unneeded items helps considerably- the downside having to "wait" for a system boot up

lost scores on games! Really- to all the energy wasters I say wise up/ grow up!!  Do things

that make sense, when consuming energy having a cable box plugged in while you sleep

is the typical example. Change usage patterns and you shrink your bill !


Comment by Dave Dirsa on December 19, 2011 at 5:53pm

Good post. I agree that a lack of information is fueling the lack of motivation towards efficiency. I think people feel like they will loose performance when going efficient. But, for the most part, people dont know about the programs that are out there. In MA you can get 8 year no interest financing if you convert from oil to gas, or upgrade your windows, or insulation. It is just recently I have heard some commercials regarding it. Seems like a no brainer to me. Why not improve performance, and spend less. Why this is not being promoted by the media is beyond me. Maybe because it is good news, good news has a hard time making the 6 o'clock news.

Comment by tedkidd on December 19, 2011 at 12:54pm

Elisa, great post.

I think the issue is ignorance.  Behavior may have a small role, but ignorance is the 800 lb gorilla.  We are purposely being kept ignorant.  

If I don't realize what I'm wasting, how am I to stop being wasteful?  How am I to realize how wasteful I am without seeing how other people are ACTUALLY doing?  We tell people PROJECTED savings, but you know what matters to me?  Actual savings.  Proof.   

Until utility companies allow us to get at their data and help clients SEE ACTUAL SAVINGS, much of energy efficiency seems like it just might be empty promises.  

Is it the window guy's fault he promises the moon?  No, it's the fact nobody tracks results because energy is cheap, and tracking is not.  If we can get at the data and transform it into consumable information, solid proof of savings, Home Performance will take off like a rocket ship.  

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