Behavior, Energy & Climate Change

March 01, 2012
March/April 2012
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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To understand how we acquire or manage our energy resources—including end use energy—we have to understand human behavior. This often-undervalued variable in our energy economy may be our most critical resource in creating sustainable homes and businesses and meeting our energy challenges.

In November 2011, the fifth Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference convened in Washington, D.C. Since 2007, when the first conference was held in Sacramento, the focus of the BECC conference has been on understanding the decision-making processes that people and organizations use when making choices about the use of energy resources and understanding how those choices affect climate change. The BECC conference is a place where people researching behavior and energy can share information with their peers; a place, too, where they can share information with energy efficiency practitioners who can put that information into practice quickly, to find practical long-term solutions to our energy-related problems.

Douglas McKenzie-Mohr at pre-conference workshopDouglas McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist, leads an all-day pre-conference workshop on community-based social marketing during the 2011 Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference last November in Washington, D.C. (Todd Hoener)
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Linda Schuck, senior advisor at the California Institute for Energy and the Environment (CIEE), founded the conference and chaired it from 2007 to 2010. The CIEE, Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy convene the BEEC. Interest in the conference has grown steadily; in 2011, registration was sold out. Of the 650 attendees, over 20% came from universities and colleges; 20% from for-profit consulting or energy service contractors; 11% from federal, state, or city governments or national laboratories; 8% from nonprofit policy and consulting organizations; 7% from utilities; and 6% from state corporations, public authorities, or regulatory commissions. Several weatherization agencies were there, and interestingly, one high school and one school district were registered.

BECC is loaded with national and international academics and researchers. However, that should in no way dissuade a nonacademic from participating. The speakers, the presenters, and the general conversation at the conference engage any student of energy efficiency who recognizes the importance of behavior in the use of energy and in the choice of energy resources. There is plenty of how-to information and case studies amid the numerous research findings and panel discussions. And it is a plus that some utilities, regulators, and government agencies are represented and contribute to the conference.

For the second year in a row, BECC started the conference with a seven-hour preconference workshop presented by Douglas McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist, founder of community-based social marketing (CBSM), and author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior. The workshop focused on how to apply the tools and strategies developed by Dr. McKenzie-Mohr in creating a CBSM program with sustainable outcomes. The workshop was long but worth it. Two ideas gleaned from the workshop come to mind. First, information-intensive programs alone (that is, bill stuffers, flyers, booklets, direct mail, and so on) are not likely to change the energy consumer’s behavior. And second, behavioral change is the cornerstone of sustainability. CBSM is a road map away from the first and toward the second message. See the end of this article for more about Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s work.

In 2011 BECC touched on several new topics integrating behavior and energy. One session was entitled “Home Energy Audits: Getting Them Right.”

The BECC session presentations address an assortment of topics. Some past examples include behavior and energy modeling; marketing, branding and messaging; behavior-based savings as an energy resource; integrating building and product design; mobilizing action in communities; leveraging social norms and social media; guilt and identity; using visibility to boost sustainable behavior; consumption and lifestyle; diffusion of innovations; feedback technologies; and national security.

In 2011 BECC touched on several new topics integrating behavior and energy. One session was entitled “Home Energy Audits: Getting Them Right.” This session covered homeowners’ behavioral responses to audit reports, and research results from a survey of energy auditors. Another clarifying and inspiring session was entitled “Climate Denial, Public Attitudes and Behavioral Missteps: Understanding the Landscape.”

Measuring and verifying energy savings that are caused by the behavioral choices of individuals and organizations is one of the more challenging issues presented at BECC. How does one log the savings in kWh caused by a deliberate change in behavior? Several options were proposed in the session “Evaluating Behavioral Programs in Commercial Settings.” This is where the hard sciences (math, physics, engineering, and so on) meet the harder sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on). In a model developed by Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, program implementers observe baseline energy use before implementing an energy-saving project. After the intervention, which includes energy efficiency upgrades as well as occupant education, energy use is measured again. The energy savings from retrofits are subtracted from post-intervention energy use. Any additional savings should be due to behavioral changes. The actual process is a bit more complicated than the model, but the model makes the point: Energy savings caused by behavioral changes must be measured, and researchers are working on finding ways to do it.

Methods of measuring energy savings that result from behavioral changes are important for other reasons as well. For one, they will help to narrow the gap between the public’s expectations and the reality. There is still, after all, a perplexed general public that does not comprehend why, after it purchases a household’s worth of energy-efficient appliances, the utility bill does not drop. This disconnect between technology and behavior prompted EPA to remove programmable setback thermostats from the Energy Star program in 2009, because many people struggled to use them appropriately and the claimed savings were not substantiated (see “Energy Star Changes Approach to Programmable Thermostats,” HE Mar/Apr ’07, p. 10). Measuring energy use changes related to behavioral changes will help to close that gap.

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