This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

How many energy efficiency experts does it take to change a light bulb?

Using energy more efficiently is by all accounts the cheapest, fastest and cleanest road to meeting the nation’s energy and climate goals. Plenty of technology is already available to reduce energy use dramatically. Study after study shows that investing in efficiency is a moneymaker. And using less energy means using less coal and oil now, rather than waiting to build cleaner power plants and produce more electric cars. Little wonder, then, that the failure to take advantage of the efficiency opportunity to its fullest has long been the greatest frustration of energy policy makers.

Little wonder, that is, until you try to do it. Our kitchen has nine ceiling lights that are on almost all day, so replacing them with efficient compact fluorescent lights – CFLs – seemed a no-brainer. All that I had to do was find a CFL that had the same brightness and color as the bad old incandescent bulbs.

Now, I know something about this stuff, and I ran a pretty intensive search for exactly the right CFL. Despite sifting through reams of data on lumens and Kelvin temperatures — no luck. Even worse, my potential energy saving bonanza slid into an economic loss as I bought and rejected a parade of CFLs that made the kitchen look like an operating room. About to give up before going further into debt to save energy, I happened to see in a local hardware store a CFL in a package reading, in effect, “This CFL exactly replaces the bulb you’re trying to get rid of.” And it did. The problem, it turned out, was not with technology but with communication.

Tom Dietz, a professor at Michigan State University, and his colleagues have given this problem serious thought. Their research into why people don’t take advantage of profitable energy efficiency recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His article makes two points that energy policy makers should heed.

First, changing behavior is hard if it involves changing habits. People don’t want to move out of their comfort zone and so their thermostat remains fixed. Nor do they enjoy sacrificing the freedom to drive when and where they want, often alone and maybe in the family SUV. What’s going on here, of course, is that it’s not just energy that we buy, it’s the services energy provides — things like comfort, convenience and mobility. That’s where the true value to us lies. Dietz thus makes the profound but perfectly reasonable observation that the fastest way to get people to become more energy efficient is to provide products that supply the same level of service while using less energy.

And second, the easier it is to make a change, the more likely folks will do it. In the example of my CFL experience, detailed technical specifications didn’t help, but telling me in plain English that this CFL would provide the same kitchen lighting as my old bulbs did help. An Energy Star label also helps. It tells customers that they can choose their desired appliance features knowing they will also save energy.

Investing in something like a new air conditioning system is more expensive and more complicated than buying a different bulb or small appliance, but the principle is the same. Homeowners will be perfectly happy to buy a modern system that saves energy as long as they don’t have to sacrifice comfort. The technology is readily available, but someone needs to guide homeowners through the unfamiliar steps of finding the best unit for their needs — including financial incentives to purchase a more efficient system, assurance of quality and reliability, and easy access to the necessary products and services.

Tackling energy efficiency with these principles in mind can make a big difference. Dietz and his co-authors point out that homeowners make energy decisions that determine almost 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. They examined 17 energy efficiency actions (like buying a new air conditioner or more efficient appliance) that could reduce these emissions by as much as 40 percent. Achieving the full 40 percent reduction would require serious behavior change, but Dietz calculates that half of this potential could be realized without modifying lifestyle — just by making the changes easier to do. That would be a great start on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s a feasible goal for the near term.

Of course, our longer term goal for energy efficiency should be more ambitious, but attaining it will mean learning to overcome more entrenched resistance to change. Energy policy makers are learning that behavior matters. It’s a development that’s welcome, if long overdue.

Robert Fri is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies natural resource and environmental issues. He has served as director of the National Museum of Natural History, president of Resources for the Future, and deputy administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. Read his full bio.