Energy Behavioral Science

The energy behavioral science industry is an emerging market, but there are many companies and utilities out there who feel it could be a large one. One of the biggest companies currently applying behavioral science to energy conservation is Opower.  They provide an excellent white paper titled Energy Efficiency through Behavioral Science and Technology.  From the white paper:

Despite near universal interest, however, most people don't have the information or motivation they need to act efficiently. Utility efficiency programs typically have less than 1% participation. The problem is that while interest is very broad, it is also very thin. Energy efficiency isn’t as interesting as Facebook, movies, or so many other options, nor is it financially compelling for most people.

And later:

These high-tech solutions are facing a similar challenge—very few customers are intrigued enough by energy data to spend up to $200 on an in-home monitoring device, or even to take the time to seek out this information on- line (Mapawatt Note: we couldn't agree more). Preliminary accounts show that the percent of customers who log on to explore their energy usage data online At OPOWER, we’re taking a unique approach to engaging customers. By proactively “pushing” targeted information to households through existing communications channels including the web, email and mail, OPOWER is managing to grab the attention of nearly three million U.S. households, resulting in 2% to 4% aggregate energy savings. At first glance, this may not seem like much, but when applied at broad-scale, the aggregate savings are substantial.

In an example of how they are using the research of energy behavioral science (which Opower defines in the paper as "applying proven techniques to motivate action") expert Dr. Robert Cialdini to achieve energy conservation action:

Cialdini proved that descriptive social normative messages consistently beat messages focused on environmental, societal, or financial benefits. For example, in a hotel towel reuse study, guests who were asked to help save the environment by reusing their towels were significantly less likely to comply than those who were told that they should join the 75% of fellow guests who are reusing their towels.

So basically, behavioral science is figuring out what tools or external stimuli can be used to motivate people to take action.

Along these same lines, The Atlantic Magazine recently ran an article on behavior modification (the result of behavioral science) and one of the founder's of the field, B.F. Skinner,  with the intro:

B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will.

Apparently back in the day there was a bunch of "hub bub" around behavioral modification, but honestly, I can't see the big deal.  To the people who think behavioral modification is fascist or manipulative, apparently you have been living in a cave and don't realize how our very society is one big behavioral modification experiment.  Isn't the hottest tech company in the world, Facebook, getting the majority of their revenue through an attempt to motivate the users to buy their advertisers products?  I don't see a big difference between advertising and behavioral science...but I digress.  The simple fact is: Behavioral science works.

The majority of the Atlantic article focuses on how behavioral modification - through technology like websites and phone apps - can be applied to weight loss, but there were a few references to energy behavioral science:

At Palo Alto’s storied University Coffee Cafe, I recently found myself sitting next to a young fellow named Yoav Lurie, who turned out to be running a Boulder-based company called Simple Energy, which uses Facebook as a social-reinforcement tool for conserving energy by tracking, sharing, and reinforcing certain behaviors. The product, like many of its competitors in the booming field of energy-related apps, is sponsored by large utility companies incentivized to reduce their reliance on conventional power sources.

Another site very similar to Simple Energy is Pushing Green.  Both of these sites are using contest, prizes, and social integration to try and motivate users to conserve energy.  My biggest question for sites like these is how long users will stay motivated.  I'm a huge energy conservation nerd, but I don't want to compete with someone on who can change the most light bulbs in their house or turn down their thermostat the most.  I have changed all the bulbs I want to and I manage my thermostats as efficiently as possible.  I need the advanced version of energy behavioral modification.  An example of this would be my web enabled Ecobee thermostats sending me a reminder to raise my thermostats in the summer when my iPhone's geo capabilities tell Ecobee that I have left the home (and my wife isn't there).  I could do this on my own, but alas, by behavior has yet to have been modified and I often forget or am too lazy to do this.

Another big company working with utilities to try and lower customer energy consumption (at least during peak times) is Tendril.  One of their products is called the Tendril Insight.  From the product page:

When people know more about their energy consumption and electricity rates, they’re bound to make better decisions about how much energy they use and when they use it.

Tendril Insight is an In-Home Display (IHD) that communicates with networked smart devices, such as thermostats, electricity meters and outlets, and displays information about energy consumption, rates, and cost of use. Empowered with real-time information, energy consumers can save money, improve efficiency and participate in utility programs. Energy service providers benefit from a reliable communication channel to improve Energy Efficiency, drive Demand Response, and reduce customer service incidents.

A little more sexier than the Tendril Insight, check out the products that Ambient has made like the Energy Orb, that changes colors when energy prices get high (in variable energy price markets).

In regards to how different forms of feedback affects household energy consumption, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) produced this excellent chart below (thanks to PowerCost energy monitor for pointing this out):

It's a pretty fair assumption that most people will not conserve energy without constant reminders or prodding.  There are just too many other things we have to worry about in life these days.  The emerging market of energy behavioral science is still trying to find the right way to remind consumers to save energy.  Based on our observation from the past few years, there doesn't seem to be much of a demand to actively save energy without any external stimulus (i.e. see now defunct Google PowerMeter and Microsoft Hohm).  Opower and Tendril plan on making their money from working with utilities, who are good at producing and distributing electricity, but not usually good at engaging with their customers.  The big question is if utility customers will like to be constantly prodded to save energy or reduce their demand?  Simple Energy and Pushing Green hope to engage customers via Facebook apps, but how long does that stay "sticky".  Like losing weight, consumers will not take action until they feel like there is a need to.  If there is no desire to save energy, will behavioral science work?

Related Posts:

The alter-ego of using energy behavioral science for good: The Jevons Paradox

enjoyed our post? let others know: 


Chris, I don’t disagree with anything that you have stated or referenced in the blog….I would however add that it’s a continuum of investment and return. ACEEE did a terrific job of summarizing a swath of research in this space and summarizing it down into one simple visual. My overarching point is not all homes and homeowners are the same. There is a plethora of choice now in this space and we need to target the right solution to the right end consumer. The great news is the tool kit is large and compelling…..and the ability to make a substantive difference is here – we have today difference makers. Alberta Innovates released the results of their yearlong pilot study last week and concluded that homes using the base PowerCost Monitor (real time usage info on a portable in home monitor) produced consumption reduction of 9%. A $100 tool producing 9% consumption reduction is powerful – compelling smartphone apps, etc will only build on these results with choice, targeting and engagement. All good stuff, and all here today. Peter Porteous CEO Blue Line Innovations
The second paragraph of Peter’s response is what companies try to do when creating products. However, the consumers should also do their homework and try to get the best product for them. This is the only way that both the company and the client can be ‘in harmony’ at least.

Post new comment

Subscribe to Comments for "Energy Behavioral Science"