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BECC 2011 Conference Reflections

December 5, 2011

Last week, I attended the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) Conference in Washington, DC. Since I am just starting my degree, I didn’t have anything to present. However, I wanted to attend to get a sense of what sort of work is being done in the energy and behavior space. Overall, it was an interesting conference and definitely got me thinking about a couple things.

Here’s my play-by-play:

Session 1: “Feedback and Behavior: Getting into their Heads, Homes and Habits”. This panel of people from energy efficiency companies was a really interesting overview of how people are trying to encourage energy efficiency via very different business models. EnergyHub focuses on developing “smart” tools such as in-home displays, sockets, and thermostats that interface with a website. They focus on giving people immediate feedback – for example, giving you advice on where to set your thermostat while you are setting it.

I was less impressed by Efficiency 2.0 which called itself the “Groupon of Energy Efficiency” and uses a reward-based system to encourage energy efficiency. Maybe it’s true that “90% of people don’t care about energy” but I still think it’s important for them to understand the problem and it shouldn’t be necessary to trick people into energy efficiency.

The final company in the panel was Opower, whom I have looked at before as a result of my interest in electricity bills. They use social norms to encourage energy efficiency by telling people how much energy they use compared to their neighbors. They are currently focused on making these message more personal by providing a clearer context of who your neighbors are. Right now they use a bar graph display, but they showed a geographical display that they are also planning to implement for comparisons between neighborhoods.

Interestingly, all three of these companies emphasize monetary savings over environmental messaging.

Session 2: “Which Technique is Most Effective?”. When comparing techniques for encouraging energy efficiency including:

  • information/energy-saving tips
  • ranking/competition
  • social norms/neighbor comparison
  • goal-setting

goal-setting was the clear winner with approximately 1.33-2.13% reduction in energy usage. However, it’s very important to make sure individuals choose ambitious yet achievable goals for the program to work. The close second was social norms with 0.87-1.39% reduction in energy usage. This might seem small, but it really does make a difference.

There was also an interesting talk about moral licensing where a study by Verena Tiefenbeck showed that people who got messages about water conservation increased their energy conservation. I was certainly surprised by that finding!

Session 3: “Worldviews, Lifestyles, Attitudes and Pocketbooks”. This session was a little hit-or-miss. It brought up some important points, such as the role of local weather in determining opinions about climate change. I was really surprised when I first learned about that phenomenon. To think, a warm cup of coffee in your hands could really cause you to perceive the people around you as warmer! But there were also some low points, such as when one of the speakers talked about the effect of gender on energy efficiency messages in an evolutionary psychology framework. *gag*

Also, apparently Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard is a good book.

Session 4: “The Importance of Messaging: Getting the Word Out in Good, Bad and Political Times”. The first talk was about how they encouraged conservation in Japan when all the nuclear generation was taken offline. Some people in Japan reduced their electricity consumption by 25%! I learned that the word for energy efficiency in Japanese is “setsuden“. The take-home message for effective messaging was that they did not have effective messaging. In fact, their messaging was very confusing in that it was unclear how much energy people should save and how. But, since the country was in the midst of a crisis, everyone understood that they should probably do something. Alan Meier has written a bunch about this phenomenon.

SCE took an edutainment approach with Carl & Eddy in an effort to portray the utility as an energy adviser and improve customer satisfaction.

Session 5: “The Frontiers of Behavior Research”. This was my favorite session. ACEEE talked about their plans for “tamagotchi buildings” where buildings are personified (sort of like pets or … tamagotchis?) via a full sensory experience. For example, the elevator groans if you use it to go only one floor or something makes you think “oh no the building is sad” and causes you to engage in some energy-efficient behavior. talked about a competition they are planning to launch in California. I spent most of this presentation being shocked that the carbon footprint of snack food is equal to that of meat. How has no one ever told me that before?

Session 6: “Sensing Peoples’ Behavior: Innovative Techniques to Find Out What’s Really Happening”. This session was a really interesting panel of techniques that ranged from the SenseCam that was filled with sensors plus took pictures every minute and when an event occurred (ex. sudden change in temperature) to disaggregation of smart meter data via algorithms.

Session 7: “Targeting Low Income Communities”. The first talk did a segmentation analysis to make profiles of different high-energy usage, low-income consumers. They identified 5 profiles:

  • Declining Health/Wealth (27%) – retired, stay at home most of the time
  • Divided Household (26%) – large families, renters with extra appliances
  • Hostage to Domicile (24%) – inefficient housing
  • Concerned but Uninformed (19%) – unaware how to reduce usage
  • Merry Users (13%) – at the top of the low-income bracket, “I can afford to have all of these appliances, so why shouldn’t I?”

The other talks discussed how economic factors can do little to incur behavior change when the consumers are unaware that their bills could be lower or how to accomplish this. Community-based efforts can be particularly effective for closing this knowledge gap.

Overall it was a good conference and I definitely want to go back and present next year. I discussed my research plans with a couple people and they seemed interested. Most of the sessions I went to focused on messaging and how to communicate to consumers – I was surprised by how much interest there was in this subject. It seems like this is the sort of thing that they would have already figured out, but I guess the electricity industry is even further behind the times than I realized in terms of customer engagement.

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