The US Department of Energy’s reputation is now enshrined as the agency that Republican presidential contender Rick Perry wants to dismantle – if only he could remember its name. But a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences offers a different direction for the federal agency, one that may not make it more memorable, but a bit more people-centered.
The academy tackles a problem that beguiles the energy industry. Now that we have the technology that lets householders take more control of their energy destiny, how do we inspire them to do so?
The question is central to energy efficiency efforts because smart technologies, such as home energy displays and cell-phone controlled thermostats, offer new ways to save energy. A lot of energy – and therefore money – is at stake. Homes account for about 30–40 percent of US energy consumption. So cutting household energy use by just 20 percent would reduce total national energy use 7.5 percent, according to the report.
We can blame the energy industry for our lack of interest in home energy management, or credit the industry, depending on how you look at it. Utilities have done their job too well. Energy flows invisibly into our homes. Or as Steven Koonin, DOE undersecretary for science, says in the report: “One of the great triumphs of modern society is that we’ve hidden the infrastructure. Nobody really understands where electricity, gas, or water come from.”
Now that we want people to be aware, how do we make energy infrastructure visible, at least psychologically?
The academy says it’s time for the energy industry to seek answers within the social sciences, a realm it’s rarely delved into. Drawing from a two-day workshop the academy held in May, the report highlights several places were human nature and energy realities collide.
* People don’t trust government or institutions. In fact, trust in almost every major American institution has declined since the 1960s. But our trust can be re-won, albeit not easily, if we’re invited to participate in the creation of policy and programs.
* Humans are not rational. We make decisions based on incomplete information or the advice of trusted acquaintances who may not know much. Arguments by industry experts won’t win us over, but we may start saving energy if we think it will enhance our social status.
* An energy efficiency paradox exists. Even if people can save money, they may not pursue energy savings. Part of the problem is a perception that energy savings technologies lack quality, as in misconceptions that efficient lighting must be hard on the eyes.
* Making our homes more energy efficient needs to be easy, and is often not. “Poor marketing, delayed incentives, burdensome paperwork, and uncertain product quality” characterize too many home retrofit programs, says the report.
* Even if energy efficiency produces long-term savings, people often will avoid spending the money on retrofits or new appliances if upfront costs are high.
There are no easy answers here. The report recommends that the DOE’s number crunching arm, the Energy Information Administration, begin gathering data that will help social scientists figure out why and how we consume energy. The report acknowledges, though, that any attempt to expand the DOE to do this work may be met with political resistance at this time.
For those interested in the topic of energy and human behavior, look to more information likely to emerge later this month from the annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference that will be held in Washington, DC.
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.