When it comes to discussions about energy and climate, the focus is nearly always on technology. We wonder whether coal can be cleaned and solar panels made efficient, if there might be a breakthrough in algae biofuels or carbon storage. In short, we think about about hardware.
But a traditionally overlooked area of energy innovation is experiencing a boom in research attention: human nature. Engineers and power companies are now drawing on lessons from the social sciences, trying to understand the behaviors that shape energy use and how people can be persuaded to use less energy in the first place.
The potential savings are enormous. According to a recent report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an energy industry think tank, the U.S. could cut energy consumption by one-quarter without hurting its economy. Another analysis pegged the potential household savings offered by such simple measures as carpooling and window-sealing at 7 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions, an amount roughly equivalent to the year emissions of France.
With the United States pledging to dramatically cut fossil fuel pollution by 2030, the shift in focus is coming at an opportune time. “In the last few years, there’s definitely been a lot more interest in behavior,” said Ed Vine, an efficiency researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “In order to achieve our energy-saving goals, it can’t just be technology by itself.”
Vine has worked at Berkeley Lab, which conducts research for the U.S. Department of Energy, since the late 1970s, not long after a cardigan-clad President Jimmy Carter asked Americans to turn down their thermostats to save oil. For the next few decades, that moment would become a cultural shorthand for energy conservation based on changes in personal behavior: well-intentioned, sensible and, well, kind of boring.
Moreover, most of the people working on energy efficiency were engineers, who tended to view challenges as essentially technical. If they designed better systems, of course people would use them, because that would be sensible. Human nature isn’t always sensible, though. Witness the long struggle to make energy-efficient light bulbs mainstream, or the way most people still prefer to raise the thermostat rather than put on a sweater.
Eventually, as economists Hunt Allcott and Sendhil Mullainathan would write in Science in 2010, engineers and policy experts needed to confront “a more complex, less idealized, view” of energy choices. They’d have to engage with the social sciences, with psychology and sociology and anthropology, and use randomized trials and iterative designs.
“Engineers do innovative things, and that’s still continuing,” said cultural anthropologist Susan Mazur-Stommen, who directs the Behavior and Human Dimensions Program at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “But engineers are not great at understanding human behavior. They’d make these rational arguments about saving money or energy, and people would say, ‘That’s great!’ But people didn’t change.”
The influence of social scientists can be seen in the agenda from this year’s Behavior, Energy and Climate Conference. There are talks about improvements in modeling human behavior, the roles of social networks, and the methodological details of conducting ethnographies.
Many of the talks at the conference involved how to frame energy-saving programs, or analyzed the influence of promotions. Simply signing pledges, for example, seems to have long-term effects, and it’s better to emphasize a few key behaviors rather than presenting long lists of possible changes. According to Vine, strategies for encouraging people towards better behaviors—nudging them, in social science-speak—are a major research theme, as is the resonance of different messages with different demographics.
“We find that energy savings is a good selling point for certain people up to a certain point, but you need other messages for other audiences,” Vine said. Some people find environmental health, personal comfort or energy independence to be especially compelling, and energy companies are just now developing a fine-grained understanding of their market’s segmentation.
In a similar vein, Mazur-Stommen is intrigued by the various ways people respond to home energy-management apps, such as Google’s now-defunct PowerMeter. Some people ignore them, while others make the apps a part of daily life. That seems to have little to do with technical aptitude, she noted: Indeed, techies seem to lose interest once they’ve figured out how the systems work.
Mazur-Stommen also mentioned burgeoning interest in applying principles of game design to energy programs. Her own pet project is the Tamagotchi Building Project: an attempt to envision how buildings can be anthropomorphized, so that energy-efficient acts feel like gestures of affection. “People inhabit their buildings for much of each day,” said Mazur-Stommen. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could enter a more nurturing relationship with them—if we could think of them as pets?”
Mazur-Stommen’s architectural Tamagotchis are still hypothetical, but a few companies have already started taking social insights to market. The most prominent is Opower, which works from the premise that behavior changes are frequently motivated more by peer pressure than virtue or even self-interest. Opower contracts with utility companies to give personalized assessments of household energy use, which is compared to neighborhood patterns and accompanied by savings advice. So far, they’ve consistently achieved energy savings of around 2 percent.
Another company, Bidgely, has developed algorithms that pull appliance-specific energy signatures from household electricity patterns, then provide suggestions on how to cut back. According to preliminary research by Bidgley, this results in average energy savings of 6 percent. Further hinting at the market’s possibilities, Apple recently announced its entry into home energy management, and Google purchased smart-thermostat maker Nest Labs in January.