How Keeping Up With the Joneses Can Help Save the Planet

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “energy hog”? For me, it used to be a Hummer.

These words always generated the image of a massive, gas-guzzling vehicle, cruising through the city, trying to find a place to parallel park… which he never will. Though as time passes, more often my first thought is, well, us. What about our homes and our offices? Even in my line of work as a sustainable building consultant, I have found myself being poked fun at for turning off a light when I leave a conference room while on site visit for an office building energy audit. Upon hearing the jokes about my compulsive light-switching when leaving and entering, I think to myself, “Hey, you’re the weird one. Why leave the light on when no one is using it?” And yet in retrospect, it’s likely more common than any of us think. Take on the role of energy auditor in your home or in your office and pay attention to lights left on in rooms when people exit, water still running in between tasks, air conditioning kept on while no one is home, or windows left open to let in the hot outside air while the air conditioning is running. And the office temperature is always a fun one to master. I’m going to say it. We’re the energy hogs. Not that hypothetical Hummer I always blamed.

However, the good news is that if we are the cause, we can also be the solution. We must ask ourselves, “How we can rewire ourselves to pay attention to the energy we use and the energy we may waste?” Today’s technology allows us to check-in at any given moment of any given day—sending emails, logging into social media, being in the know and part of the times, all the time. So why aren’t we checking in on our energy use while we check in on our messages, bank accounts, and perhaps the occasional celeb gossip, and how can we convince the populace to make that part of the norm? The answer may come from our neighbors. A behavioral science experiment was run in a neighborhood in San Marcos, California, a decade ago, by a group of graduate students. The experiment aimed to discover what would be the biggest driver behind households not only monitoring their energy use, but conserving it. Through signs hung on the doors of homes in this San Marcos neighborhood, they asked that families turn off their air conditioning and turn on their fans in order to save energy. However, one quarter of the signs reminded homeowners how much money they could save by doing so, another quarter was given an environmental message, and the next was given a message about helping the community and others through preventing blackouts. Now, one could assume that the most effective message was that describing the monetary benefits of switching cooling sources; but the study found that where these three messages were placed, hardly any impact was made. Energy consumption stayed almost exactly the same, as if they hadn’t received any suggestion at all.

This is where it gets really interesting: the fourth group of homes was given a message that stated, “When surveyed, 77 percent of your neighbors said that they turned off their air conditioning and turned on their fans. Please join them. Turn off your air conditioning and turn on your fans.” Hearing what their neighbors were doing proved to be the spark, and this collection of homes saw noticeable declines in energy use.

So what do we find from this? If we see something as an inconvenience, like turning off our air conditioning in exchange for fans and shaded windows, we are not moved by much. Moral obligation, good citizenship, a financial incentive—none of these seem to do the trick. But keeping up with the Joneses? Now that’s something that speaks volumes.  And companies are paying attention, finding ways to harness this social pressure to change the way society thinks about energy conservation.

One such company is Opower. Co-founded by Daniel Yates and Alex Laskey, Opower’s mission is to “change people’s behavior in a measurable, lasting way around energy consumption.” Opower created software allowing them to partner with utility companies to help clients save energy. They provide personalized energy reports to homeowners that—you guessed it—compares their energy usage to neighbors in comparable abodes. With the stats of their neighbors, recommendations to help them save, and fun tech tools to use such as a mobile application, the web, and a controllable thermostat, individuals now have the power and the motivation to start seeing results. And they are. Laskey states,

Ordinary homeowners and renters have saved more than 250 million dollars on their energy bills… This year alone, in partnership with more than 80 utilities in six countries, we’re going to generate another two terawatt hours of electricity savings. … Two terawatt hours is more than enough energy to power every home in St. Louis and Salt Lake City combined for more than a year. … It’s roughly half what the U.S. solar industry produced last year. … In terms of coal, we’d need to burn 34 [wheelbarrows full of coal] every minute around the clock for an entire year to get two terawatt hours of electricity.

Another group utilizing behavioral science to promote change is co-founder and CEO David Gershon’s Empowerment Institute. The institute focuses on creating behavior change and community engagement in cities, because they generate the majority of carbon emissions. Gershon argues that “helping cities empower their citizens to reduce their carbon footprint provides the world with an unparalleled opportunity to address climate change.” While Opower provides each home with information to help them compare against others and improve, Empowerment Institute helps cities start “EcoTeams,” groups of individuals working to adopt low-carbon lifestyles, such as low carbon diets and more energy efficient household systems, and then replicating the program with others. Empowerment Institute believes these teams not only promote individual habit changes, but green economic development, social capital through strengthened neighborhoods, strong teams that perform in other civic and business opportunities, innovation, and engaged citizens.

What we’re seeing from the experiment in San Marcos and in companies like Opower and the Empowerment Institute is that society and its effect on behavior is a powerful thing. Used fittingly, it could create one of the greatest advancements in energy conservation—habit change. Attentive world citizens that check in on their energy use, monitor it, and use it thoughtfully to limit wasted energy brings us ever closer to a sustainable energy future.

And we can start today.

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Author: Samantha Longshore

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