What’s better to spur energy savings through energy management: technology or policy? It’s been debated at conferences and in thought pieces, and one can make a pretty strong case for technology being the better driver. After all, when there really is no policy (read government-backed incentives) for energy management, it’s hard to make a case that policy is the better driver.
Here’s why technology should work as the better driver, courtesy of an enlightening piece in the New York Times on why “We’re All Climate Change Idiots.”
To lay the groundwork, author Beth Gardiner writes that in our fretfully busy lives, we have trouble with abstract concepts like climate change and what to do about it:
We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Yet there are ways to get people to do something about climate change, and one way involves technology. In a study, researchers saw that presenting climate change as a technological challenge rather than as a regulatory problem made those who would normally discount climate change claims more receptive about those claims.
The article cites other ways technology can be used to nudge people toward energy efficiency:
Taking advantage of our preference for immediate gratification, energy monitors that displayed consumption levels in real-time cut energy use by an average of 7 percent, according to a study in the journal Energy in 2010. Telling heavy energy users how much less power their neighbors consumed prompted them to cut their own use, according to a 2007 study in Psychological Science. And trading on our innate laziness, default settings have also conserved resources: when Rutgers University changed its printers’ settings to double-sided, it saved more than seven million sheets of paper in one semester in 2007.
The references above may be dated in the energy management world, but they speak to our now almost innate preference to use of technologies to solve our problems. Having real-time energy usage information from energy monitors can curb usage 5 to 15 percent, though that may be temporary. And pairing energy monitors with an energy management/automation system that can automatically shut off energy-intensive appliances and devices can make those savings grow and last. Seeing how much less energy your neighbors use has been an effective tool for utilities employing Opower’s services, and many energy monitoring/management companies are offering social media Facebook interaction, automated tweets and game playing to spur interest.
I’ve been a big proponent of systems that allow people to adjust their thermostat settings via their smartphones, because I can see that doing it via a smartphone gets people interested in energy management. Yes, they should already have their thermostats programmed to come on to certain temps and certain times. But people find it cool to use the smartphone, so let’s let them!
We’ve also written about the move toward a set-it-and-forget-it automation with regards to energy management, and how that kind of automation may really be necessary to get us to save effective amounts of energy in our homes. In our busy lives, this could be considered a necessity.
What About Policy?
All those wonderful things said about technology being the better driver is fine, but why hasn’t it happened? We seem to have most, if not all of the tools to automate our energy efficiency. And it seems the biggest hindrances are money and interest, which is why better consumer education about energy efficiency is so desperately needed.
Good policy, such as offering real rebates for investments in home energy management systems, such as what was once proposed in a Home Star bill (Cash for Caulkers), could spur an entire energy efficiency industry. (And think of how many homes and buildings in this country could use efficiency upgrades.) This could be an economic boon that lasts for decades—if this country had the political will to spend big and just do it.
Ultimately, policy could be the better driver. But if you’re counting on that, you’re probably backing the wrong horse. Or no horse at all. Better to count on technology driving a real interest in efficiency.
The problem is, no one will use the technology if they don’t know about it. And that’s why education is key.
Interestingly, it may not be just technology or education that drives energy management. It may be something else entirely, like health, says the Times article:
Simply presenting climate science more clearly is unlikely to change attitudes. But a better understanding of our minds’ strange workings may help save us from ourselves.
Research also suggests public health is an effective frame: few people care passionately about polar bears, but if you argue that closing coal-burning plants will reduce problems like asthma, you’re more likely to find a receptive audience, says the American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet.
Digital health care with some energy management, anyone?
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