Change Habits As Well As Light Bulbs

We are bombarded daily by advertisements selling us soft drinks, pharmaceuticals, cars, insurance, junk food, teeth whitener, diet programs, and on and on. But when was the last time someone tried to sell you on using more electricity?

I cannot think of a single commercial that encourages us to plug-in, even though electricity is the chief product of 3,000 utilities in the United States.

This speaks to how easy it is to access and use electric energy; its relative cheapness, invisibility, and integral role in daily life. No need exists for utilities to market electricity; we devour electrons blindly.

So how do you convince people to conserve something that they use so much, yet hardly even notice they buy?


Behavioral science may hold the answers, as pointed out in a new report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, “Visible and Concrete Savings: Case Studies of Effective Behavioral Approaches to Improving Customer Energy Efficiency.”

Getting consumers to save energy is as much a people problem as a technology problem. Or as the report puts it: “To achieve greater energy savings through energy efficiency, we need to design and build programs that change habits as well as light bulbs.”

The report highlights 10 energy efficiency programs that have done so. The programs include: building operator certification, in-home energy monitoring, media messaging, keeping up with the Jones emotional pressure, ATM-like energy purchasing, in-home energy displays, employer cheerleading, corporate energy management, green recognition, and feebates – fees or rebates for cars based on their energy efficiency.

What do these programs tell us about human behavior when it comes to energy efficiency? For one thing, we need to see how much energy we use, clearly displayed in our homes as we use it. And we need proof – true measurement and verification – that our efforts to conserve pay off. Such data also encourages political support for efficiency programs.

The report finds we worry about social norms – if we learn our neighbors save more energy than we do, we try harder. And believe it or not, money doesn’t really motivate us very much. Or at least we do not always make rational economic decisions. We are more apt to act based on values, curiosity, self-esteem, and other non-economic motivators. When money is used as an incentive, bonuses need to be large and immediate, not spread out over time.

The report is available here.

Elisa Wood is co-author of “Energy Efficiency Incentives for Businesses 2010: Eastern States,” available at

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Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry's top magazines and newsletters, among them Renewable Energy World and Platts. She serves as chief editor of Her work has been picked up by the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal online, Utne, USA Today and several other sites. She is author of the report "Think Microgrid: A Guide for Policymakers, Regulators and End Users." See more of her work at

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