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The Human Element: Energy Efficiencies' Greatest Challenge

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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Problem solvers would address a technical problem with a technical solution but as stated by researcher Lazarus Adua, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Utah, human behavior will alter even the most definitive findings.  “If you're only paying attention to improving efficiency and investing in renewables, you're not going to solve the problem.”  The problem, in this case, is greenhouse gas emissions and its greatest challenge, the human element.  As a whole, our society wants to help improve the environment and reduce CO2 emissions.  However, a recent study found that once individuals believe they have accomplished a measure of energy savings they tend to use more energy.  So much more energy that they negate the benefits of efficiency.  It’s like eating a gallon of cookie dough ice cream after a high intensity Tabata workout.  Well maybe not exactly like that but this phenomenon, known as ‘the rebound effect’ is defined as the reduction in expected gains from new technologies that increase the efficiency of resource use, because of behavioral or other systemic responses. These responses diminish the beneficial effects of the new technology or other measures taken.

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This challenge shouldn’t discourage utilities or policymakers from improving energy efficiency initiatives.  The southern states could especially benefit from a few policy upgrades.  WalletHub measured the efficiency of home-energy consumption in 48 U.S. states. Due to limited data, Alaska and Hawaii were excluded from their analysis.  Among the ‘Most & Least Energy-Efficient States,’ South Carolina, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee brought up the rear and in the lead were Utah, New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota.   Tennessee ranks No. 46 in home energy efficiency and No. 34 in total residential energy consumption.  While electricity rates are lower there, Forest Bradley-Wright, energy efficiency director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy pointed out that, “TVA stands out at the bottom of performance in helping customers make energy efficiency improvements.” Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) residential rates average in the bottom 25% of all U.S. utilities and its industrial rates are among the cheapest 10% of U.S. utilities. Bradley-Wright continued, “Energy rates are lower in the Tennessee Valley, but home energy bills are still relatively high in the Valley and that speaks for the need for and the benefit of efficiency programs.”

Or are energy efficiency efforts doomed to fail? Will renewables provide better outcomes than energy efficiency programs?  No.  In fact, both energy efficiency and renewables are helping reduce emissions.  The study found that statistically there were no significant differences between the two.  “It is not the policy that is not working. It is not efficiency that is not working. It is generally the way that human behaviors interface with them,” Adua says.

On the subject, Adua concluded, “We need to think about these solutions more holistically, you have to think about restructuring the society in ways that will make it more efficient overall," said Adua. "But when you talk about structural change, people are just thinking, 'that will destroy our way of life.' But if we don't solve that problem today, the environment will change our way of life for us. Maybe not our generation, but our descendants, the environment will change their way of life.”

Is the residential sector headed for a “rebound effect,” with customers using more energy than before because it’s cheaper and cleaner? What are the most effective ways to change human behavior? 

 

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