Cutting energy use takes information and motivation

We can all do a lot to reduce energy consumption – and lessen our contribution to climate change. But changing behavior can be a challenge, even if we want to change. That’s the dilemma that IU faculty member Shahzeen Attari confronts in her research and teaching.

Start with the fact that most of us don’t really know how to conserve. As the nation observes Earth Day for the 44th time, it’s striking that most Americans have little idea how we use energy.

Shahzeen Attari

Shahzeen Attari

“Most people think that turning off a light is effective. It’s an easy thing to do and it’s very visible,” said Attari, an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington. “But other behaviors that are just as easy can save a lot more energy.”

Her research finds that people slightly overestimate the consumption for low-impact items like light bulbs and computers and dramatically underestimate what it takes to run a large appliance. “On average, people think a dishwasher uses about 800 times less energy than it actually does,” she said.

How energy-savvy are you? You can find out by taking an interactive quiz, developed by the online magazine Slate in conjunction with Attari and her research team. For expert suggestions on cutting energy use, Attari suggests “the short list,” a paper by Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern that suggests overlooked activities such as tuning up your car, adding attic insulation and turning down your thermostat. (Hint: scroll down to Table C to see the list).

Attari notes that 20 percent of U.S. energy consumption takes place at home, so there’s considerable potential for reducing energy use – and greenhouse gas emissions – by changing individual behavior. But it will take more than information to get the job done.

“Correcting misperceptions is important, but it’s not enough,” she said. “We have to inform people, but we also have to motivate people. They have to think, at the end of the day, what do I do with this new information?”

Research suggests peer influence, social norms and information campaigns can have an impact:

  • Residents of Juneau, Alaska, cut electricity consumption by 30 percent after an avalanche knocked out transmission lines, causing prices to spike. Consumption remained low even after prices returned to normal.
  • Other communities have rallied support by tying conservation to energy independence. “They changed the frame,” Attari said. “They said, ‘Let’s conserve so we can be resilient.’”
  • Utilities in California and Washington, relying on the theories of social psychologist Bob Cialdini, reduced consumption by printing emoticons on electric bills – “smiley faces” for customers who used less power than their neighbors and “frowny faces” for those who used more.

More ideas may come from a SPEA course that Attari developed and is teaching, titled Human Behavior and Energy Consumption. Teams of students identify a behavior that can be changed in a way that reduces energy consumption, and they apply what they learn in class to try to change it.

This spring, one group worked with a campus café to put up signs encouraging the use of refillable coffee mugs and documented that the signs had an impact. Another worked with a hardware store to get customers to replace home lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs.

Not all the projects succeed, Attari said – but the point is to direct more creative and original thinking toward the idea that people can dramatically cut energy use without hurting their quality of life.

“The question is how we get there,” she said. “We need political will and public support, two things that have really been missing from the ball game.”

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