A new paper called “Public perception of energy consumption and savings” was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and has garnered a lot of attention.
From the New York Times Dot Earth blog:
The take-home conclusion is that if the United States is to harvest what some analysts have called a “ behavioral wedge” of hundreds of millions of avoidable tons of greenhouse gas emissions (and wasted energy), a vital prerequisite is boosting energy literacy.
From the New York Times Green blog:
… people seem conditioned to think of energy savings as they would of saving money: that they can save by simply reducing use, the study found. But the biggest energy savings are tied to replacing things that use a lot of energy with things that use far less.
Habits like turning out the lights when leaving a room may be virtuous but don’t move the needle much on energy savings. Yet that action was cited by more of those surveyed (19.6 percent) than any other method of saving energy. By contrast, just 3.2 percent cited buying more energy-efficient appliances.
Many consumers don’t have a good concept of how much energy per hour a given appliance uses. People understand how much energy goes into a light bulb per hour, Attari said, but not the equivalent of how many light bulbs per hour are used by a dishwasher.
Attari also attributed a psychological phenomenon called single action bias, in which a person does one or two things to address a problem and considers themselves off the hook, as an explanation of why some believe they do more to conserve energy than they really are. When those one or two things fall into curtailment, like turning off the lights, instead of efficiency, like replacing the washer, they help less than some perceive.
Attari notes that there has been a failure of communication by scientists, government, industry and environmentalists alike. Instead of more forcefully promoting the importance of these bigger changes, the focus has been on recycling drives and the small steps many people cite as being important.
The study points out that this is a curtailment (or conservation) vs. efficiency issue. It makes intuitive sense that not doing an activity (not driving, not using lights) would save more energy than doing an action with more efficient equipment or appliances. But it’s not true. The savings from replacing old equipment or home retrofits can be much larger than the energy saved by turning out lights or not driving.
It makes sense that in the recent study participants would optimistically err on the side of thinking that daily actions under their control have a lot of impact – it takes mental effort to remember all the small habits, and it seems that psychologically folks want to think that the small habits make a big difference.
In reality, behavioral changes are a lot less “sticky” in terms of long-term energy savings than energy-efficiency retrofits or appliance upgrades. It’s pretty easy to let habits slide, but permanent improvements to infrastructure require less behavioral change after the initial installation.
There was an interesting study to this effect released last year (also in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) called “Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions.” It examined the plasticity of 17 household action types in 5 behaviorally distinct categories (W, E, M, A, and D):
Home weatherization and upgrades of heating and cooling equipment
(E) More efficient vehicles and nonheating and cooling home equipment
(M) Equipment maintenance
(A) Equipment adjustments
(D) Daily use behaviors
Retrofits and equipment changes had much higher behavioral plasticity than “daily use behaviors,” which required consistent, conscious choices to maintain. A table highlighting results of the study can be seen here and below.
Image credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences
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