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Decision Science News

July 10, 2014

Opinion: We're leaving too many energy dollars behind us, on the ground

Topics: Strategy

May 19, 2014

We could save a lot of cash – and keep a lot of carbon from the air – if we tweaked our habits and focused a little more on saving energy. 

But we're all too busy. 

Here's what we need to change.


By Ruth Greenspan Bell 
and Elke U. Weber
The Daily Climate

WASHINGTON – When you work on climate change policy, as we do, frustration is a given. Exercise is an antidote. But what happens when antidote becomes frustration?

The Washington, DC YMCA offers a convenient evening spin class, a good place to blow off steam. The Y also regularly seeks member donations for very deserving social programs, such as summer and after school programs for low income kids. 

But walk into the Y and – particularly if you work on climate policy – you can't help spot money flying out doors and windows: TVs run unwatched on equipment. Lights illuminate empty rooms and hallways. You feel the building strain to cool members on hot days and warm them on cold ones. 

There's a solution to all this: energy service (or savings) companies, known asESCOs, analyze properties and design energy-efficient solutions, using savings to pay back the investment over time, from five to 20 years. They know innovative financing methods. They can tap government incentive programs. ESCOs aren't foolish. They do the work only if savings will cover the costs.

Pushing on an open door

You'd think connecting Y management with an ESCO would be pushing on an open door. The Y is a community organization. Those energy savings would go a long way to support programs for kids, and the Y serves as a great example for the region.

Not quite. Instead the Y serves as a fine example of what's so hard about saving energy in this country. 

In 2010 we started making inquiries with Y management about saving energy. Almost 28 months later, in November 2012, the conversation started in earnest. Another year passed before we could finally connect an ESCO and the Y on the phone. 

Based on just that one call – maybe 30 minutes! – the ESCO rep ID'd several efficiencies, such as solar hot water on the roof, as well as a few programs that could pick up the costs. But that was in December. Today, four years and counting after starting, we have yet to get an in-person meeting between the facilities manager and an ESCO rep. Meanwhile energy dollars continue to fly out the doors, roof, walls and windows of the Y.

The Y doesn't have a penny to spare. But it doesn't have incentive to change, either. And that is the conundrum. 

Least resistance

None of this is attributable to bad motives, laziness or malfeasance. People have day jobs; they have to hit their marks. To use less energy means considering new ways to conduct business. It may mean looking at your job in a different way. 

People – and organizations like the Y – take the course of least resistance. The psychologist David Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for showing just how much we make decisions based on reflex and habit. He doesn't focus on how much we waste, but those habits often are wasteful. Yet we never notice: We're too busy – focused myopically on immediate needs – to notice how much money we each leave on the table. 

We purchase those programmable thermostats, for instance, but then get side-tracked by dinner or household chores or pressing work, and never install or program them. Millions and billions of lost opportunities add up to a lot of wasted carbon.

Is there an answer to this inertia? We believe there is and it's something we are working on with partners in the utility, engineering, business and government worlds. 

Lessons from the Obama campaign

One hope lies in behavioral research used successfully by President Obama's election campaign to increase voter turnout. 

The Obama team didn't just remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. They asked would-be voters to sign an informal commitment, helped them make a voting plan, and applied subtle social pressure – telling supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote, for example. Each one of these made a voter more likely to vote Democrat – and made enough difference to cumulate into bigger results.

Similar tools can be put to work to improve energy efficiency.

Many hotels in Europe equip each room with an electrical shut-off system. You slide a card into a slot as you enter, activating the system: Lights come on, the TV powers up. Withdraw the card – usually the room key, minimizing the chances you'll forget and leave the key behind – and the room goes dark. Hotels in the United States may "educate" guests and housekeeping to turn off lights, but to what result? This makes it automatic and easy. The savings are obvious. 

Happily, Hilton Hotels in the U.S. is moving in this direction, largely to save money: Why pay to heat and cool empty rooms? 

Change the 'social norm'

We need emissions limits and we need energy efficiency legislation. But to make real progress on emissions, acting on all fronts is essential, including making a dent in those pesky individual energy consumption habits. 

The potential is limitless. Rather than ask people to save energy, do it for them, as Hilton Hotels is doing. Make energy savings a community effort – what the behavioral world calls a "social norm" - that you do with your neighbors, as solar panel buying clubs are showing. We are working with engineers from Clemson University, to find easy ways for architects and engineers to design energy-saving options into buildings

None of this is rocket science. Habits have consequences; their cumulative consequences can make a big difference in this fight. Behavioral researchers say results can be achieved if you "make it simple, stupid." When the Y starts to pick those energy dollars up off the ground, we will know we are on our way toward really doing something about greenhouse gas emissions. 

Ruth Greenspan Bell is Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Elke U. Weber is Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia University and Co-Director of the university's Center for Research On Environmental Decisions and the Center for the Decision Sciences. Together, they head SUSSTAIN, an organization dedicated to demonstrating how insights from the behavioral and social sciences can be put to work on energy consumption challenges.

Photos: Washington YMCA pool courtesy Esther Dyson/flickr. Light switch courtesy Lisaeeeee/flickr.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter@TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at]

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