Efficiency programs aim for our inner Captain Kirk

Energy-efficiency wonks are gathering in Washington, D.C., this week for the annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference.

The four-day event is a chance for behavioral scientists and energy-efficiency program managers to swap notes and ideas on the best ways to motivate people to change their light bulbs or upgrade their appliances.

Among the scheduled speakers is Neely Crane-Smith, communications coordinator for Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment. (Disclosure: CEE is a member of RE-AMP, which produces Midwest Energy News; also, my wife has participated as a volunteer in its neighborhood outreach programs.)

“When you look at the history of energy-efficiency programs, these programs tend to have been designed for Spock. The idea is that if you just give people the right information, it’s logical that they will then implement that information,” says Crane-Smith. “But we’re not like Spock. In fact, more people are little more like Captain Kirk. We have lives and families and a lot of things going on and it’s hard to focus just on energy-efficiency, especially if the information is boring or overly technical or difficult to implement.”

Many energy-efficiency programs are now trying to better incorporate behavioral science, or at least the experience of their peers, into their design.

Crane-Smith is a scheduled panelist for a session called “Success Stories of Behavior Programs in Residential Buildings.” She’s planning to share a summary and results from CEE’s Community Energy Services program, a partnership with Xcel Energy, Centerpoint Energy and the City of Minneapolis.

In Minnesota, among people who have a home energy audit conducted, less than 5 percent typically follow-up with a major upgrade, says Crane-Smith. CEE set a goal of getting 25 percent of participants to make a major improvement after their energy audit. They surpassed that goal, achieving an upgrade rate of around 30 percent.

The success starts with free community presentations before any energy audits are conducted, says Crane-Smith. The meetings give people a chance to ask questions and see that others in their community are doing the same thing. Another motivating factor, they believe, has been limited-time rebates for things such as insulation. As the rebate expiration date nears, more people decided to upgrade. The group provides lists of contractors that are qualified to do the work, and they follow up with homeowners by phone after the audits to see if they have new questions.

“When we leave your house, that’s not the last time we’re going to hear from us,” says Crane-Smith.

There are similar home energy audit programs across the country, but they all vary in their approach, from the upfront cost to the homeowner to the size of rebates available for upgrades. One thing Crane-Smith said she and others will be interested in is how those different numbers drew different responses from participants, and whether they can collectively identify a sweet spot that extends program dollars and motivates participants.

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