April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

A Sustainable Energy Future Will Require Changes in Public Behavior

At a recent meeting at Duke University, President Brodhead was asked about how they prepared students for the real world.  He responded to this softball question in a conventional manner and then ended with a statement of belief in “a contagion of good example.”  Having delivered this almost sotto voce, he then left with no further explanation.  I took him to mean that the Duke community, by its actions, instilled lasting values in departing students.

Although I was willing to give him credit for this nice turn of phrase, I looked it up.  The earliest reference is in Luke where the belief is stated that the contagion of good example is “the best means for inculcating virtue.”  Jesus is believed to have used this in his method of teaching.  The theologian philosopher George Berkeley is quoted as “neighbor will emulate neighbor and the contagion of good example will spread.” This last brings us closest to the situation with green behavior today.

A number of offerings can be expected in the arena of green energy.  Examples would be electricity from renewable sources, car variants such as hybrids, natural gas and electricity powered vehicles, and smart meters in homes, to name a few.  These involve making choices.  Innovators of technology know that the barrier to wide-scale adoption is particularly high when it involves substitution of something familiar. Research in the motivation of early buyers of hybrid electric vehicles showed a disposition to be being “seen as green.” This is close to Berkeley’s neighbors emulating neighbors.  But we all know that early adopters are not necessarily representative of the general population.  Widespread adoption will require a viral spread of beliefs.  This is why the word “contagion” is so appealing in its very unusual use in a positive context.

Robert Cialdini and co-workers at Arizona State University conducted an interesting set of experiments in Phoenix hotels.  One set of guest bathrooms had “re-use towels to save the environment” type placards, as we have all seen ourselves.  In another set of rooms, the placards read that the majority of guests in that very room had re-used their towels.  The incidence of compliance in these latter rooms was 33% greater than in the control set.  Is this an incidence of at least a minor infection of good example?

Energy efficiency is possibly the most powerful weapon in the clean energy arsenal.  This is because no matter how dirty the energy source, using less is a net positive.  Some approaches will be transparent to the public, such as the sub-one watt standby power standard being proposed for household appliances.  However, the choice to keep each one of these plugged in even when not in active use is a conscious one, at least for power hogs such as phone chargers and printers.  Studies have shown that standby power accounts for between 7 – 10% of total household consumption.  To be perfectly clear, this power is  simply enabling a convenience feature, and therefore amenable to behavior modification.  Technology can and will address this issue.  But low power devices will only get you so far.  Can people be pushed in that direction without the compulsion of laws?  Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein suggests that this is possible, in their influential work Libertarian Paternalism.  Their concept is further elucidated in their book Nudge.

The Smart Grid is essential to support diurnal sources of electricity such as solar and wind.  It is also needed to assure the proper implementation of electric vehicles.  An aspect of the Smart Grid is smart meters in homes.  These will provide homeowners with considerable data on their energy usage and offer the opportunity for more efficient use.  Time of day pricing will help.  But ultimately, the concepts flowing out of Cialdini’s study cited above are likely to play a role in influencing behavior.  Neighbors emulating neighbors may be literal in this case.


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