This article was originally published in the January/February 1994 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online January/February 1994


Can We Transform the Market Without Transforming the Customer?


by Merrilee Harrigan

Merrilee Harrigan is a senior program manager with the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the condition of a home, the behavior of the occupants is the most powerful determinant of how much energy is consumed.

Technologically, residential energy conservation is a huge success. Refrigerators are twice as efficient as they were in 1973, furnaces one-third more efficient, and light bulbs four times more efficient. Comparable gains have occurred in the thermal performance of building shells. The big challenge in increasing the efficiency of energy use among residential customers today is not technical. It is the challenge of persuading consumers to purchase and install energy-saving measures and to manage energy use more effectively.

Utilities mainly rely on two measures when they seek to influence the residential energy market: information transfer and financial incentives. Information transfer ranges from broadly targeted media campaigns to direct interaction with customers during home audits. All these efforts have had a positive effect and public support for energy efficiency is very strong. According to surveys by Cambridge Reports, the Alliance to Save Energy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, the public thinks government should make energy efficiency and renewables their first or second priority for energy funding and development. They also support government incentives and regulation that promote efficiency.

Yet while customers may support energy conservation in theory, they are not taking advantage of efficiency opportunities themselves--at least, not in the numbers they could be. Utility mailings and bill inserts typically get response rates of under 5%. Nationally, fewer than 6% of eligible households have taken advantage of free utility-provided energy audits. Of those customers who have received audits, only a small percentage carry out the actions recommended by the auditor.

This low response supports the contention that even though information campaigns create both a more favorable attitude towards energy efficiency and a clearer understanding of its rewards, changes in attitude and understanding do not automatically lead to action. In their book Promoting Energy Conservation: An Analysis of Behavioral Research, Richard Katzev and Theodore Johnson review a number of studies that attempted to use information to induce people to change their energy-use behavior. They conclude that information programs alone are not sufficient to induce resource--conserving behavior.

Given the disappointing levels of energy saved per marketing dollar spent, many utilities and other energy-efficiency proponents are trying programs where success is less dependant on consumers being proactive. One such response to consumer inertia is utility-pay-all programs, in which the utility retrofits the homes of eligible customers for free--at least as perceived by the lucky customer. Eventually all ratepayers, including the recipient of the service, pay the cost. In addition to being very financially attractive to most customers, this approach simplifies customer choice.

Such programs can cost $1,000 or more per home. The economic justification for this ostensibly lavish service is that it is more cost-effective for the utility to do the retrofit job itself, thus guaranteeing a predictable level of savings, than to continue to spend money--perhaps lots of it--to persuade the customer to do the job.Treat the home, not the customer approaches may work fairly well on a short--term basis, in that they predict measurable savings. But to have long-term effects, strategies must address the fact that no matter what the condition of a house, the behavior of the occupants will determine how much energy gets consumed. Princeton University's well-known Twin Rivers study showed that identical buildings with identical appliances could vary in energy consumption by as much as 100%, depending on the residents.

Other statistics reinforce the importance of behavior. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that in 1986, one-quarter of all residential energy savings came from consumer decisions to lower thermostats and close off unused rooms. These behavior-induced savings amounted to one quad--more than the savings from retrofit installations (.8 quad) or efficiency improvements in the shells of new homes (.6 quad).

Barriers to Action

The challenge for the energy-efficiency industry is to combine direct-installation programs and financial incentives with education and communication strategies that build in consumers a broad and deep understanding of their opportunities. Numerous utility programs, especially with low-income weatherization customers, have shown that education is a cost-effective measure. To be effective these programs have addressed the key barriers to consumer action. Many consumers perceive energy-efficiency actions and investments as

  • Unfamiliar and intimidating (I've never touched my water heater, let alone adjusted it.)

  • Confusing, with too many choices (There are 15 kinds of caulk on this shelf--which one should I get for my windows? For my dryer vent?)

  • Difficult to do (How do I change my showerhead to a low-flow model?)

  • Unpleasant (My water heater is in the basement, and it's dark and dirty down there.)

  • Done in isolation (My neighbors haven't told me that they turned down their water heater thermostat, so why should I do it?)

  • Difficult to evaluate, results virtually invisible (I turned down my water heater thermostat and wrapped the tank, but I can't tell whether doing so made any difference in my bill.)

  • Easy to ignore (I think I have done everything I can to make my home more energy-efficient.)

  • Expensive (I know I should do something, but I don't have the money to invest in insulation right now.)


Interventions more powerful than information and marketing delivered through the media or by mail are required to overcome such powerful barriers to action.

Effective Intervention

Several researchers have proposed guidelines for delivering information in ways that enable customers to take effective and continuing action. Some of these guidelines result from academic research on how adults learn and what makes them act. Others have been discovered through pilot programs sponsored by utilities and other agencies (see Taking Back the Take-Back Effect, HE Sept/Oct '90, p.19). Here are some principles on which there seems to be unanimous agreement:

  • Information should be individualized and personal. Standardized information by definition cannot point out the unique opportunities presented by each home. Energy professionals visiting a home should not lose the opportunity to discover the unique sources of energy waste in that home and to explain them in a way that the resident can understand. Help people understand how their homes work--how they use energy and how their energy systems provide comfort. Most people are still remarkably uninformed about how they use energy. Many cannot name the largest energy user in the home--and very few can name the second largest. Without this basic knowledge, it is difficult to prioritize energy-efficiency actions. Explanations should use concrete, vivid terms rather than quantitative language.

  • Feedback is essential. Annual summaries of energy use can help people see the seasonal effects of efficiency improvements (see Sleuthing Out Behavior with Feedback,). More immediate feedback is necessary in cases where the customer has taken an efficiency action or is attempting to keep monthly usage below a set level (see Detroit Edison Saves, HE Nov/Dec '93, p.10). Too often, efficiency programs stop after the customer has taken an action, be it purchasing an efficient appliance or agreeing to an action plan of behavioral change. The benefits of that efficient refrigerator, or of setting the thermostat back, need to be clear--clearer than can be seen in the monthly bill. If a program will have results that customers won't notice on their bills, they need to understand how and why their actions are important.

  • Recognition reinforces intention. Recognizing customers who get results--for instance, featuring them as an Energy Saver of the Week in the local newspaper--not only encourages them to take further action, but also helps persuade customers who have not yet done anything that energy efficiency really works.

  • Asking for commitment will improve customer performance. Commitment is one of the most effective behavioral change techniques, leading to changes by more people, more significant changes in behavior, and behavior changes that last beyond the commitment period. Asking customers to choose an action they are willing to take and asking them to make a commitment to it (preferably in writing) can be part of many kinds of energy-efficiency efforts.


Successful Programs

What types of programs and activities work to create efficient consumers? Evaluation data are still too sparse to answer that question definitively. Although evaluation techniques have improved markedly in recent years, many program evaluators still consider communication programs to be too difficult to evaluate. Some utilities are minimizing or eliminating consumer education because it does not provide the predictable, measurable, short-term results needed by planners of demand-side management programs.

However, data from some education programs do indicate that certain communications strategies have succeeded in motivating consumers to take action. Three of these programs are described below.

Penelec and Niagara Mohawk Field Tests. These field tests, conducted by the Alliance to Save Energy, demonstrated that adding intensive energy education to low-income weatherization programs could produce significant energy savings when compared to identical weatherization programs lacking an education component.

Pennsylvania Electric Company (Penelec) added energy education to their time-of-use program, which was focused on reducing peak use and customer costs for electric water heating and appliances. Three education approaches were tested, including a video, and a set of three energy-education home visits. Likewise, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation (NMPC) supplemented a weatherization assistance program with three in-home education sessions and an affordable payment plan to provide comprehensive energy management services to low-income customers, who had trouble paying their bills.

In both cases, education produced a statistically significant reduction in energy use. The Penelec customers who viewed a video and participated in three home visits achieved average energy savings of 16.4%, compared to 8.4% for the control group. The NMPC customers who participated in three in-home education sessions achieved a reduction in energy use of 25.7%, compared with a 16.3% reduction by those who received standard weatherization measures. Full reports on both these field tests are available from the Alliance to Save Energy.

Both these test programs focused on helping families gain more control over their comfort and their energy costs. The programs both included

  • reinforcement (the educator returned twice after the original session to reinforce and help problem-solve)

  • a personal relationship with the educator

  • active involvement (participants decided what actions to take after understanding the consequences of different energy choices)

  • commitment (participants signed action plans to indicate commitment to carrying out those actions)

  • feedback (the NMPC project sent letters along with their monthly bills describing participants energy savings in relation to the goals they had set)


Neighborhood Energy Workshops. Another approach that seems effective in eliciting the active participation of large numbers of consumers is one that has been demonstrated by Neighborhood Energy Workshops (NEW), a neighborhood-oriented program cosponsored by the City of Minneapolis and Minnegasco, the local gas utility. City staff identify and train volunteer block captains who invite their neighbors to energy workshops. Block participation averages 35%-40%.

The program includes four components: energy-use habits, furnace and appliance efficiency, low-cost weatherization, and major weatherization. Participants receive $40-$50 worth of weatherization materials, and they are trained to take the low-cost actions on their own. Participants who want to invest in major weatherization work are eligible for an energy audit, low-interest financing, city-certified contractors, and free infrared thermography to spot gaps in insulation. The entire cost of the program is approximately $80 per household. A preliminary assessment of energy savings due to new workshops, comparing gas consumption before and after the workshops (using PRISM methodology), estimates a 4.3% reduction in total gas use. A simple payback was calculated at 1.9 years.

Espanola. Ontario Hydro is sponsoring a community energy management program in the Canadian town of Espanola (pop. 4,500) (see Weatherizing [Almost] An Entire Town, HE July/Aug '93, p.15). The community has set goals for energy savings, jobs, and economic development. Goals include achieving a high level of savings and creating an aware, informed, and involved population.

Nearly 1,500 people came out for the community barbecue that kicked off the campaign. So far, 96% of residential electric customers have participated in an audit, and 70% of those have taken at least some of the recommended measures. School children designed the program logo and learned about energy efficiency in the classroom. An advisory group of residents served as a sounding board for problem solving and new ideas. Actual savings figures are not yet available, but the level of involvement demonstrates the potential of a wider approach that involves the community as well as customers.

Future Directions

The current emphasis on actual energy savings, rather than engineering estimates, provides both opportunities and challenges for energy education. Many utility and weatherization efficiency program managers are seriously examining the potential offered by consumer energy education. But these education programs must be evaluated and they must demonstrate cost-effective benefits, taking into account all the benefits offered by involved, educated customers. The primary challenges are demonstrating the longevity of the benefits of education; developing a common understanding of what quality energy education is and does; developing standards and possibly accreditation for educators; and communicating the potential benefits of education to efficiency program decision makers. One exciting new initiative is the recent formation of a national energy education organization (see Energy Educators Unite, on the next page).

To meet these challenges, utilities, governments, and others should sponsor research that helps document the effectiveness of specific approaches to education. Evaluation should be part of every consumer education program, and it should include methods for capturing benefits that are difficult to quantify, such as environmental and health benefits. The difficulties of breaking out the benefits of one component of a complex program should not be allowed to interfere with the ultimate goal: to learn how to improve efficiency programs by combining the technical side with human factors that can promote learning and behavior change.

The best energy conservation programs over the long run will combine the most-effective technology with efforts to create informed, motivated consumers who will be well equipped to continue the energy-efficiency work that the program begins. Combining technology with empowered consumers will lead to a truly energy-efficient society.




Defining Low-Income Energy Education

What is good energy education for low-income households? Pacific Power and the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services put that question to energy educators in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon Energy Services, which manages the state-wide fuel fund, in turn asked its Education Committee. The resulting principles were further refined in a meeting held at the U.S. Department of Energy's regional office in Seattle. The following areas of energy education were rated as most important


  • steps that result in lower energy costs


  • steps to increase winter indoor comfort


  • helping clients understand their utility statements


  • improving energy-related health and safety


Once content was defined, we turned to the question of delivering energy education effectively. What finally emerged were the Guiding Principles of effective energy education


  • Assess the client's needs, barriers and opportunities


  • Provide information in the priority areas


  • Develop the client's commitment to take action


  • Reinforce that commitment and celebrate success


The goal of education is getting the client to take action. Helping clients practice new behaviors and tracking their progress are key, and celebrating clients' successes can motivate them to continue their efforts. Sometimes, something as simple as a follow-up phone call or reminder postcard can make all the difference. Evaluation is also essential for a successful energy education program.

There's a tendency on the part of some educators to think that information by itself will be sufficient--especially when client time or enthusiasm is limited. A shotgun approach of providing lists of tips overlooks the value of working on what affects the client's lifestyle.

The following table was proposed to outline how effective energy education might be delivered in a short (half-hour) in-office session, small-group workshop, or home visit/weatherization audit.

-- Dave Brook

Dave Brook is an area extension agent in the extension energy program at Oregon State University in Portland.


Table 1


Guiding Principle In Office Workshop Home Visit Coordinate energy A. Obtain copies of other low A. Obtain copies of other low income A. Obtain copies of other low- education with other income program descrip program descripions and require- income program descriptions services, internal and tions and requitements. ments. and requirements. external to the agency. B. Make referrals as appro- B. Workshop leader to attend training B. Make referrals as apppropriate priate (see Step C below) session if provided by funding source. (see step C below). Assess consumer energy A. Administer household A. Administer household energy A. Review energy usage/payment needs and education energy survey. survey at beginning of workshop. history with consumer. opportunities B. Discuss answers with B. Review typical answers in session. B. Home walk-through with con- *energy costs consumer. sumer to review energy use *comfort C. Maker referrals to other practices, maintenance, *understanding utility bills low-income programs as indoor comfort, and health *improved health and appropriate. and safety. safety C. Make referrals to other low- income programs as appropriate. Increase consumer's A. Cover at least one of four A. Small group (max 20) demonstra- A. Review and discuss energy knowledge and awareness energy topics: conservation/ tion relating to all four energy top- topics in all four areas. comfort/payment opportu- ics: conservation/comfort/payment B. Use relevant supporting nities/health and safety. opportunities/health and safety. materials: worksheets. B. Use relevant supporting B. Use relevant supporting materials, booklets, video. materials,worksheets, worksheets, booklets, video. booklets, video. Develop consumer A. Negotiate action plan for A. Workshop participants fill out A. Negotiate plan for at motivation to take action no more than four signifi- action plan for no more than four least four significant energy and reinforce the can energy steps energy steps. steps. commitment B. Postcard or follow-up B. Postcard or follow_up B. Postcard or follow-up phone phone call to all program phone call to all program call to all program participants participants desirable. participants desirable. desirable.

Figure 1. Gas consumption for weatherization versus weatherization with education.


Sleuthing Out Behavior with Feedback

Energy education professionals are in the process of defining the essential features of a consumer education program that works--meaning the customer takes action that produces measurable, persistent, cost-effective savings.

One conclusion emerging from the limited amount of evaluation to date is that feedback is an essential feature of a successful program. The consumer must first develop intent. Intent leads to action. But once the action is carried out, especially by consumers who perceive efficiency measures as innovative and a bit of a gamble, those customers must get tangible evidence that their actions and investments did indeed achieve the expected result. Without such feedback, the customer's will to take further steps is likely to weaken, and the utility will have lost a valuable marketing asset--a customer who will extol the benefits of energy efficiency to friends and neighbors.

The vehicles for providing feedback range from inexpensive steps like teaching customers to read their meters to more complicated and expensive methods like installing special indoor meters that allow customers to see real-time changes in consumption of an appliance, such as an electric water heater before and after an insulating blanket is installed.

One of the more promising means utilities have for providing customer feedback is the monthly bill. In a fascinating study of how different types of utility customers use their monthly bills, two researchers--Willett Kempton of University of Delaware and Linda Layne of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute--concluded utilities can provide the type of feedback that will validate the effects of customers' efficiency-improving steps and perhaps encourage them to take further ones. To explore systems that would be economical and quick to implement they examined feedback which could be provided with existing utility data processing equipment now used for billing.

Starting from the assumption that the capabilities of information processing technologies are rapidly outpacing our society's ideas of how to exploit them, Kempton and Layne devised an energy report specifically intended to help individuals or organizations make energy choices, such as deciding whether or not a conservation program has achieved sufficient savings to justify its cost.

The researchers, in interviews with 56 all-electric households in New Jersey, analyzed strengths and weaknesses in the ways residential consumers use information available from a typical utility bill. Nearly half of the respondents said they paid attention to kWh usage, although the level of sophistication in how they processed the information varied immensely. More common was using the dollar amount billed for comparisons. For example, some compared the highest bill from the current year with the highest bill from the previous year as a gauge of whether they were using more or less energy. A few kept meticulous records on home computer spreadsheet programs. However, even these methods produced inaccurate results, because the consumers either lacked access to the data, or failed to use the techniques required to isolate the effects of energy-efficiency measures from weather, rate changes, and other variables that affect usage levels.

Based on these findings, Kempton and Layne proposed a division of labor based on the cost of collecting the data needed to make energy-efficiency decisions. Weather adjustments would be done by the utility: The problem with traditional billing is that it leaves to the consumer the intermediate steps of collecting weather data, adjusting energy use for weather, and deciding whether the month is anomalously high or low. Yet it is precisely these types of standardized data collection and computation which utility computers are good at.

On the other hand, when outside analysts evaluate the effects of conservation programs, they are seldom as qualified as the consumer in figuring out what caused the change. As Kempton and Layne describe the problem:

If the only household change were the conservation program, interpretation would be straightforward. But households don't stand still during conservation, and analysts typically lack detailed behavioral histories and so resort to speculation about why the savings differed from predictions. Was the conservation work done poorly? Did the residents take back savings in higher thermostat settings? Institutional data in this case--blind to within-house events--looks as amateurish as does household estimation of weather data based on days of shoveling snow.

It is reasonable to assume that when customers become involved in sleuthing out how their own behavior and the energy characteristics of their homes affect the size of their monthly bills, they will be more likely to choose corrective action and carry it out, especially if they can look to the utility for technical advice. This led the researchers to propose mailed (annually or semi-annually) weather and rate-corrected feedback which could supplement traditional monthly billing.

-- Stephen Frantz


Energy Educators Unite

Energy educators from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. in October to formalize an association of professionals in the field. The National Energy Education Forums (NEEF), national conferences held annually for the past three years, have focused on a variety of issues and agendas for energy educators, and have served as lively and informative venues through which educators, program managers, utility representatives, and others meet to network, share stories, and confirm the value of energy education.

The 14-member interim board met to develop a plan for creating an organization that will foster the ongoing needs and activities of energy educators. Much of the discussion at the retreat centered on the need to create and sustain an environment where energy education is accepted, valued, and practiced.

The organization's mission states that through forums, networking, and publications NEEF will:

  • track and distribute research results

  • prioritize research needs and share program models, resources and peer and program review

  • develop a framework for establishing standards and accreditation procedures

  • contribute to effective technical transfer and training

  • influence policy makers to support and fund energy education

  • provide opportunities for professional development and skill building


Standing committees created by the group include fund raising, organizational membership, organization structure, forum (conference) and training, publications and research, and standards and accreditation. The next step for the neophyte organization is incorporation. For further information contact Stjepan Vlahovich of the Ohio Office of Energy Efficiency, Tel: (614)466-0545.

-- Jim Clark

Jim Clark is technical advisor for Energy Matters, a radio program produced by WRVO FM90 in Oswego, New York.




Related Articles

Energy Education: A Kilowatt Is a Terrible Thing to Waste (Firari) Capturing Conservation through Community Energy Management (Berkowitz, Karl, and Ramsay) Perry Bigelow: Energy Efficiency Maestro (Andrews)

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