Energy savings: focus on health benefits, not costs

Researchers say campaigns that benefit bank accounts won't have much effect as long as power is cheap

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      The following article was originally published by the Daily Climate

      Conventional wisdom holds that the most effective way to get people to save energy is to show them how much money they'll save.

      Turns out there's a more efficient approach.

      The amount of money consumers could save by cutting energy just wasn't high enough to be motivating.

      Reminders of the environmental health benefits of cutting electricity use are far more powerful motivation, scientists found in research published Monday inProceedings of the National Academy of Science.

      Smart meters and appliance-level monitoring technology were installed in the homes of about 120 young Los Angeles couples and families in the randomized, controlled experiment by UCLA researchers. The households were sent weekly e-mails to test the power of different motivational messages.

      The group that received reminders of how much money they could save by cutting back on electricity showed no net energy savings over the four-month trial. But a similar group cut energy use 8 percent after receiving e-mails about the amount of pollution they were producing, and how it has been shown to cause childhood asthma and cancer. The health message was most effective in the subset of households with children at home; they slashed power use a whopping 19 percent.

      A 'much more powerful' message

      The results fly in the face of even the perceptions of the experiment participants, who were questioned on their beliefs before the trial began. "Although people said in the survey that money was the most important driver, in fact, that wasn't what happened," said principal investigator Magali Delmas, a UCLA professor of management and environmental economist. "In reality, health was much more powerful as a message."

      heatmap-450asthma-450The UCLA researchers believe that at today's U.S. electricity prices (averaging 13 cents per kilowatt hour nationally, or a monthly bill of about $107) the amount of money consumers could save by cutting energy just wasn't high enough to be motivating. For most households in the experiment, whose utility bills already were less than half the national average, cutting power use to bring them in line with their most efficient neighbors would slice just $4 to $6 off monthly bills. "That's a fast-food combo meal or a couple of gallons of milk," said co-author Omar Asensio, a UCLA doctoral student studying economics and environmental sciences and engineering.

      Generally unaware of health consequences

      On the other hand, Delmas said participants were surprised by how many pounds of pollutants they could save, and the environmental health connection. "Electricity is invisible to us because it doesn't happen next to us," she said. The experiment, she said, "helped them to see it."

      The UCLA research reinforces the findings of study released last month showing that Americans are generally unaware of the potential health consequences of global warming. The nationally representative survey of nearly 1,300 adults showed that only about one in four (27 percent) could name a health problem Americans are experiencing related to global warming. Ten percent answered incorrectly that no health problems were associated with global warming. And a majority either didn't answer the question (43 percent) or said that they didn't know (14 percent.)

      Only one in ten of those surveyed said they had given the health consequences of climate change "a great deal of thought."

      "Americans primarily see global warming as a threat to plants, penguins, and polar bears," said Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, which conducted the survey with Yale University's  Project on Climate Change Communication. It is part of a series of studies the researchers are conducting to gain a better understanding of climate change in the American mind.

      Transform the debate

      Maibach said Americans generally think about climate change as a stand-off between liberals and conservatives; or between people who care about the natural world passionately and those who believe economic concerns should be paramount. Although Maibach had not yet read the UCLA study being published Monday, he said such findings underscore the possibility that greater knowledge of climate change and disease could transform the debate.

      "Reframing global warming as a human health issue does promise to provide meaning to help Americans understand the issue in a new and important way," Maibach said.

      There's ample evidence to back up such a reframing. The UCLA researchers said plenty of studies provide strong evidence of the health effects of ambient air pollution from coal and natural gas-burning, the fuels that generate most of the world's electricity. Global health damage estimates already exceed $120 billion, they noted in their study.

      Doctors: Already seeing health impacts

      And in a survey of American Thoracic Society members released just last week, 77 percent of the respiratory health professionals said they were seeing an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution in their practices. The research, also conducted by George Mason University scientists, showed 44 percent of the doctors surveyed thought climate change was already affecting the health of their patients a "great deal" or a "moderate amount," and 57 percent said they'd seen injuries related to severe weather. 

      Delmas said the idea to test health- versus economics-related motivational messages came after a discussion with electrical engineering colleagues who were working on smart metering and related technology.

      The technology can tell homeowners in real time which appliances are sucking up the most power, and it give clues what to cut back and when.

      "In a few years, we will all have this kind of technology in our homes," said Delmas. "The question always is how engaged are people going to be? Will people use the information?"

      Creative ways to slash energy use

      In fact, the UCLA researchers discovered study participants could come up with creative ways of slashing electricity use—if they were sufficiently motivated. One family, for instance, found that simply moving cereal boxes from the top of their refrigerator improved airflow enough to cut the fridge's power use, she said.

      But participants simply didn't bother if the motivational message they was how much money they'd save. Yet that's the carrot many public policymakers wave when trying to spur conservation in homes and offices, which account for more than two-thirds of U.S. energy use. Former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, for example, a strong advocate of energy efficiency, wrote about the savings opportunities in terms of "$20 bills lying on the ground." 

      Delmas, who is principal investigator  on a UCLA project called Engage, aimed at understanding energy conservation motivation, said it might be useful to do future research on whether there is, in fact, an electricity price point at which cost savings become an effective incentive. "At current prices, it's too small and too low for people to care," she said.

      Thermograph of heat loss through windows in a house courtesy murphygb/flickr. Silhouette of a child receiving treatment for asthma courtesy KristyFaith/flickr.