To better understand what real actions people are taking in light of growing public concern over the environmental impact of energy consumption, InContext recently studied how everyday people make energy choices around the home. As a way of getting some perspective on the issue, I attended a forum on energy conservation and energy alternatives.  The introductory speaker gave a rather alarming history of unprecedented population growth and rapidly declining resources occurring only within the past couple hundred years of human history.  Presenters showed analyses of oil reserves (declining) and of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions (happening, at a more rapid pace than most thought).

The theme for the night:  to prevent a catastrophe, we have to start using significantly more renewable energy and we have to start conserving right now in a really, really big way. The forum made it clear to me these conservation insiders and adherents are convinced of the path we need to take. But what about everyone else—mainstream people—are they on board? One expert estimated that we all need to reduce home energy consumption by 60-80% to even start making a difference. Are people really ready to make that kind of commitment?

Though 60-80% energy savings is huge, recent advances in design and technology are able to produce homes theoretically capable of this kind of savings (check out Europe’s PassiveHaus standard).  But, how many people are willingly going to pay a premium to build or renovate to these super-efficient standards?  Even if the government provides a subsidy? Our own research tells us mainstream people won’t pay much extra for efficiency—and won’t do it at all if the payback period is too long, let alone put up with the hassles of energy audits and replacing and renovating things for efficiency’s sake. They will, however, make efficiency upgrades for other reasons: replace an old worn out water heater, insulate to get rid of a chill, buy new appliances because they’re fixing up the kitchen. Appliances are now more efficient, but that’s only seen as a side benefit.

Furthermore, studies have shown that buildings frequently don’t perform to the efficiency level to which they were designed—a finding that points to occupant behavior as the critical variable. Even if someone pays for super-efficient construction, they may not attain what they paid for if they don’t change the way they live day to day. The forum moderator related a story that confirms this:  he and his partner live in a neighborhood of three nearly identical newer energy-efficient houses.  All three houses are occupied only by couples, each with similar work schedules.  He went around and looked at the electricity bills for the three houses and here’s what he found for average daily consumption:

His house:     3 kWh
House A:     10 kWh
House B:     20 kWh

The only reasonable explanation he could give for the difference in consumption was variation in occupant behavior: lighting usage, electronics usage, appliances they decide to buy and operate, and so forth. And formal studies reinforce his observation, having shown 200-300% variation in home energy use attributed to behavior. In fact, his house as compared to the others far exceeded the studies’ variation—but he admitted he’s an avowed energy conservation nut and the other households are more mainstream.

So even though technology enables us to move to a high-efficiency future, the real challenge is a human behavior one: getting people to request an energy audit, weatherize their houses, acquire and use efficient technologies, and turn down the furnace a notch. Fortunately for conservation advocates, our data—confirmed by years of behavioral research by others—points toward ways to foster meaningful behavior change.

I’ll discuss some of these ways forward in future posts.