To get people to use less electricity, utility providers are employing guilt and peer pressure

Keeping up with the Johnsons (energy-efficient behavior
Keeping up with the Johnsons (energy-efficient behavior
Image: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
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In the winter of 2011-12, the electricity bill came in as usual, but this time it made some customers pause. An alarming number had been added: the amount of air pollution emitted due to their energy use “which contribute to known health impacts such as childhood asthma and cancer.”

The message was sent to 118 Los Angeles homes as part of a University of California, Los Angeles study published in June 2016 testing different tactics to see what would get electric customers to cut back on their energy use.

As the threat of climate change due to greenhouse gases continues to grow, electric companies are searching for new ways to change consumer behavior to appease regulators. The best way is to hike up prices or dole out cash for conserving energy, studies show, but most prefer not to raise rates as a conservation strategy because it makes customers angry.

On the other hand, guilting and peer pressuring customers, it seems, could be the solution: it gets them to make small but lasting changes that could produce a profound impact if scaled up—and it costs the electric company almost nothing.

A 2007 study published in Psychological Science tested which of four messages led consumers to use less energy: An environmental message, a societal message (“use less energy because it’s better for your city”), a money-saving message, and a peer-pressure message. None included home-specific data except the last, which compared each home’s energy use to that of their neighbors. That was the only message that got people in this study to decrease their energy use.

“So what does this tell us? If something is inconvenient, even if we believe in it, moral suasion, financial incentives don’t do much to move us,” Alex Laskey, founder of energy software company Opower, said in a TED talk, referencing that 2007 study. “But social pressure, that’s powerful stuff. And harnessed correctly, it can be a powerful force for good.”

The 2016 UCLA study built on the results of that earlier project. Residents of 118 LA homes each got a bill that compared their energy usage to energy-efficient neighbors. Some got a cost-savings message letting them know how much money they could save per month by acting like their energy-efficient neighbors — usually $8 to $12 a month. Others received a note informing them about how many pounds of pollution that energy use was emitting from the burning of coal and natural gas.

Both groups started conserving energy at first. But the customers who got the money-saving message quickly reverted back to their wasteful ways, while households who got the health message permanently reduced their energy use 8% on average — 19% for families with children.

Many electric companies are already beginning to implement these sorts of strategies to encourage conservation, says Opower spokesman Matt Maurer. Opower provides electric companies with tools to monitor and encourage energy conservation. The company announced in 2015 it had generated eight terawatt hours of energy savings since it was founded in 2008, in part by showing bar graphs on customers’ bills that compare them to similar-sized homes and similar-sized energy-efficient homes.

When considered in the global context, these savings might seem small. After all, eight terawatts hours could power the state of New York for about 18 days, based on the average use reported by the New York Independent System Operator. But, says Omar Isaac Asensio, the UCLA postdoctoral scholar who ran the 2016 study, while “nudges” like peer pressure or pulling at consumers’ sense of moral obligation might only produce small results, those results add up.

Ultimately, major change will comes when all buildings are LEED certified, solar and wind farms are common power sources, and cities are built with a renewable energy grid system in mind. But until then, if feeling guilty when you leave your AC on all day gets you to cut down your electricity usage, that’s a legitimate step forward.