Technology continues to advance and save energy. But a funny thing happened on the way to the technological future: Occupants showed us that their behavior is crucial to energy savings.

Copyright 2013 Energy PrioritiesWe can make the most intricate energy model of a building, but it runs up against a barrier imposed by the quirky behaviors of occupants and operators.

Residential efficiency is even more maddening. People ignore information, refuse no-cost improvements, and thwart measures that are installed. When they change behaviors they often revert unless continually reminded.

Will the brain ever be as programmable as a thermostat? I led an energy conference panel last week to explore the relationship between hardware, software and “wetware” — the puzzling stuff between people’s ears that makes their behavior so hard to manage.

Behavior based energy efficiency programs target a wide variety of actions. They might encourage homeowners to wash clothes in cold water, beseech office workers to turn off computers at night, or remind building operators to perform maintenance on mechanical systems.

What these programs have in common is that they target actions that are hard to accomplish with technology alone, and impossible to scale up without it.

“Behavior based methods are very exciting. We can design very smart buildings with really cool technology, but we’re just starting to recognize that there’s a broad band of energy savings that we just aren’t going to get to through technology,” says Summer Goodwin, who leads the behavior-based efficiency efforts at Bonneville Power Administration. Headquartered in Portland, OR, BPA sells energy to 135 public power utilities across the Northwest and offers incentives for efficiency.

How broad is that untapped band of efficiency? Analyst firm McKinsey & Company has quantified the savings potential at 16 to 20 percent of total U.S. residential energy consumption that can be affected by behavioral intervention.

Opower's Matt O'Keefe: "We see a 1.5 percent impact on residential demand across the country" from behavior-based efficiency programs
Opower’s Matt O’Keefe: “We see a 1.5 percent impact on residential demand across the country” from behavior-based efficiency programs

That’s an optimistic prediction. One company that has historical evidence is Opower Inc., an Arlington, VA software company and provider of energy efficiency and customer engagement services for the utility industry. You might have seen their home energy reports tucked in your utility bills — they compare your energy consumption with that of your neighbors — if your home is served by one of the 92 utilities in the world that buy Opower’s services.

“For utilities that use Opower comparative home energy usage reports, we see a 1.5 percent impact on residential demand across the country,” says Matt O’Keefe, who manages regulatory and market development for Opower. “If it were fully implemented in every cost-effective program nationwide, we could see savings of about 19,000 gigawatt-hours per year – the equivalent of taking Arkansas off the grid.” Currently the company reports savings of three terawatt-hours of energy per year, equivalent to a major city.

Comparative energy reports leverage a simple principle of psychology known as social norms. It has been studied extensively by psychology researcher Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and an advisor to Opower.

Dr. Craig Parks, Professor of Psychology at Washington State University, explains: “People want to know where they stack up against other individuals.” Dr. Parks’s research focuses on human cooperation in situations in which there is a conflict between doing what is best for oneself and what is best for the group or society.  He also works as a consultant to utilities on reducing resistance to energy conservation. 

How we’re doing relative to others is so important to us that it will override our sense of what we think we ought to do, Parks says.

Dr. Craig Parks, Professor of Psychology at WSU: "People want to know where they stack up against other individuals."
Dr. Craig Parks, Professor of Psychology at WSU: “People want to know where they stack up against other individuals.”

“If people see a conflict between what they ought to be doing and what others seem to be doing, they’ll almost always go with what others seem to be doing. Interestingly, people will say they do the opposite,” Parks adds.

Expanding the use of behavior based energy efficiency (BBEE) seems like a no-brainer for utilities whom regulators require to capture energy savings. There’s no up-front capital outlay for owners to finance, no split incentive problem between landlords and tenants, no need for changes to building codes or equipment standards. All it takes is to get people to be more mindful of their energy use.

That’s harder than it sounds because behavior change is a relatively new concept for efficiency, with limited reach. Opower has been around for five years and penetrated eight countries, but its reports are available to only about 20 million people. Very few similar programs exist.Why isn’t this idea taking off faster?

“We’ve found that Americans spend between six to nine minutes a year thinking about their energy use,” says Matt O’Keefe. Doubling that would seem doable, were it not for some frustrating barriers to the adoption of behavioral programs.

One such barrier is the rigor of evaluators whose job it is to verify the savings that utilities report from  efficiency programs. This verification determines whether utilities have met regulatory mandates, such as the Energy Efficiency Resource Standards that are in effect in 25 states. Bonneville Power Administration offers incentives to their utility partners for achieving verified savings.

A major concern of evaluators is how long the energy savings will last.

“Persistence of savings is a big question on everyone’s minds,” says Summer Goodwin. “Evaluators seem to want years and years of data, and we only have five years, which is pretty good.” She points out that there are risks, as with any new approach. “There are some technologies that don’t even have five years of data and were still brought to market and they’re showing great rewards.”

Goodwin says the reliability of those savings is important to Bonneville. “If we’re going to build that virtual power plant, we want to make sure we can count on the savings,” she says. “We want to know how long we’ll have to pay for them and what affect they’ll have when we remove the treatment.”

In other words, do behavioral programs change short-term behaviors, or do they change long-term attitudes? Opower has found that the savings resulting from their reports does increase each year but, when the reports stop, the savings start to decline.

Technology allows the savings to be quantified and even predicted with significant accuracy. Technology is also making it easier for consumers to save energy with little or no impact on their lifestyles. Programmable thermostats straddle the line between technology and behavior while gathering valuable data.

“A thermostat actually manages 50 percent of the total energy load of an average U.S. home,” says Scott Hublou, Senior VP of Product and Customer Operations of EcoFactor in Redwood City, CA. “That means that 50 percent of your bill is derived because the thermostat says to the air conditioner or the heater, ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off.'”

Some users save energy because they enjoy playing with their Nest-alikes. Some save because their thermostat doesn’t require them to change anything they do; the device quietly learns and adjusts, being designed for those who simply won’t program an appliance.

EcoFactor’s cloud-based service takes data from thermostats, correlates that data to the weather and overlays a behavioral model. It then sends instructions back to the thermostats to optimize them, all in an autopilot mode.

“Because of our data collection capabilities and our analytics sitting out in the cloud, we’ve actually been able to reduce the energy consumption, or the cost of heating and cooling in the house, by 15 to 20 percent. That’s without the homeowner having to do a single thing,” Hublou says.

Consumers might upgrade their thermostats for the “cool factor” or simplicity. Tech vendors behind those thermostats are using what they are learning about behavior to save energy across a utility’s territory.

Opower is partnering with a manufacturer this year to introduce a thermostat that embeds the neighbors’ set points, to leverage the social norm principle that has been the “secret sauce” of the company’s paper reports. Opower also launched a behavioral demand-response system that sends messages to customers’ smartphones. The company and its utility clients can measure the results.

Smartphone apps, including the plethora of “Green Button Apps,” expand the realm of behavior change by giving users more ways to interact with their energy consumption. Apps, web portals and in-home displays also give providers a wealth of information about how engaged consumers are. Opower says one fourth of the customers in its thermostat pilots are interacting with the associated smartphone app daily. The company will learn much from studying the rate at which the new wears off.

Technology’s highest value for behavior based energy efficiency, though, is in its ability to validate savings from utility programs. Smart meters deliver consumption data at intervals of minutes instead of months. Back-end analytics systems crunch that “big data” to prove results and glean insights.

Without understanding the psychology of occupant behavior, energy-saving technologies like lighting and temperature controls wouldn’t reach their maximum potential. Without technologies to confirm the effectiveness of behavior change, efforts to scale it up to meaningful levels would continue to struggle.

That doesn’t mean the end of low-tech consumer education, although its role is evolving.

“The ‘information deficit model’ has been around since about 1974,” says Dr. Parks. “That framework said that people didn’t understand energy and just needed to be educated. Today we know that the more educated a person feels, the less likely they are to conserve. Information is important, but it’s not the only thing.”

“In regions where utilities are spending more on energy efficiency education, even if the information on its own doesn’t have much effect, Opower sees greater savings,” says Matt O’Keefe, noting that some consumers who appear to be ignoring information are actually absorbing it and becoming “more ready to act” when the right stimulus comes along.

“Frustratingly, people will do things when you’re in the process of trying to change their attitudes that from an outsider’s point of view just seem ridiculous,” says Dr. Parks, “but to that person seem completely consistent.”


Summer Goodwin, Matt O’Keefe and Craig Parks made the above remarks as panelists at the Future Energy Conference in Seattle WA on October 30, 2013. Denis Du Bois moderated that panel; he interviewed Scott Hublou earlier.






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