Dan Charles “Leaping the Efficiency Gap”
14 AUGUST 2009 VOL 325
pages 804 – 811
Experience has shown that there is more to saving energy than designing better light bulbs and refrigerators. Researchers say it will need a mixture of persuasion, regulation, and taxation
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IN BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA, TWO YOUNG physicists named Steven Chu and John Holdren were present at the birth of a campaign to curb Americans’ appetite for energy. They saw their colleague Arthur Rosenfeld abandon a successful career in particle physics and set up a new research division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) devoted to energy efficiency. Then- Governor Jerry Brown and state regulatory agencies adopted Rosenfeld’s ideas with astonishing speed. California canceled planned nuclear power plants, passed pathbreaking efficiency standards for refrigerators and buildings, and ordered electric utilities to spend money persuading their customers to use less power.
Today, Chu, now the U.S. secretary of energy, cites Rosenfeld as a model for scientists and California as a example for the nation. He points out that per capita electricity consumption in California stayed flat for the past 30 years yet rose 40% in the rest of the United States….
Alan Sanstad, an LBNL researcher who also worked with Rosenfeld, looks at the same data and concludes that California’s efficiency offensive wasn’t nearly effective enough. He points out that California’s total energy use over the past 3 decades grew at almost the same rate as it did in the rest of the country, while the state’s population soared.
Anant Sudarshan and James Sweeney of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center (PEEC) recently calculated that the state’s energy policies can take credit for only a quarter of California’s lower per capita electricity use. The rest is due to “structural factors” such as mild weather, increasing urbanization, larger numbers of people in each household, and high prices for energy and land that drove heavy industry out of the state. For Sanstad, there’s a clear lesson: Meeting the more ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require more aggressive measures that cause some economic pain. “The real potential of energy efficiency is not going to be realized until we get away from the idea that it has to pay for itself,” he says.
The biggest challenge is not inventing new technology but persuading more people to adopt technology and practices that already exist. A new generation of researchers and government officials is now examining new strategies for energy efficiency, looking for the key—or a whole ring of keys—that will unlock its full potential. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to which we have to rise,” says Ashok Gadgil, an energy technology researcher at LBNL. “We were preparing for this for 20 years; now come under the spotlight and sing!”
The human dimension Rosenfeld and Edward Vine had a friendly, long-running argument during their 2 decades as colleagues at LBNL. Rosenfeld believed in technology. When he testified before the U.S. Congress, as he did frequently in the early 1980s, he always came with props in hand: compact fluorescent light bulbs, heat-shielding windows, or computer programs for predicting the energy use of new buildings. But Vine, whose Ph.D. is in human ecology, wasn’t convinced of technology’s power. “We can’t assume, if we have a great technology, that people will rush to stores and buy it,” Vine says. “We need to find out how people behave, how they make decisions, how they use energy, and we need to work with them.”
For the most part, energy-efficiency programs around the country have followed Rosenfeld’s line. They offer financial incentives for adopting energy-saving, cost-effective technology, and trust that consumers will follow their economic self-interest. Yet many researchers are now coming around to Vine’s point of view. Consumers don’t seem to act like fully informed, rational decision-makers when they make energy choices.
Many avoid making choices at all. Give them a programmable thermostat, and they won’t program it. Offer them an efficient light bulb that pays for itself in 2 years, and they won’t buy it. Builders don’t take full advantage of the cheapest source of lighting, the sun. Even profit-seeking businesses sometimes make little effort to control their energy use, says Ernst Worrell, who teaches at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and studies companies all over the world. “There are companies that spend 20% of their operating cost on energy, but upper management doesn’t know where that money is going,” Worrell says. “They see energy costs as an act of God….”
Research has produced some intriguing insights. For instance, people believe that others waste energy because of their inner characters, but they regard their own wasteful practices as the product of circumstances. More information doesn’t usually produce energy saving behavior; experts leave the lights on, too. The concrete example of a friend or neighbor who walks her children to school is much more powerful than any impersonal exhortation to drive less. And don’t tell someone that he needs to save energy because nobody else does. “It could end up backfiring,” Armel says, because most people don’t like the feeling of being in the minority.
When people are asked to choose among options that they don’t fully understand, such as a list of investment plans, they tend to select the “default option”: the one that doesn’t require them to change anything or that seems most popular. Right now, that tendency works against efficiency. In appliance stores, says LBNL’s Jonathan Koomey, who also works as a consultant for companies, the most efficient “Energy Star” machines are usually aimed at high-end customers. They’re manufactured in low volumes and come with additional features that drive up the price. The marketing strategy sends a clear signal that these are not appliances that the store expects most customers to buy….
Frustratingly, “green” buildings often don’t deliver what their designers promised because of mistakes in design, shoddy construction, or poor maintenance. “No one measures building performance,” says Stephen Selkowitz, head of the Building Technologies Division at LBNL. “I’ll ask 100 architects, ‘How many of you design energy-efficient buildings?’ Almost all of them. Then I’ll ask, ‘How many of you know the measured performance of your last building?’ Not a soul! If you don’t know how well you did, how will you ever do any better?….”
Paying the cost Lee Schipper of Stanford’s PEEC is a grizzled veteran of campaigns to save energy around the world. And after many years in the trenches, he’s changed his mind. In the early 1970s, when Schipper was studying astrophysics at Berkeley (where he shared a graduate student office with Chu), he started teaching classes and giving lectures on the physics of energy. When the energy crisis hit, he quickly earned a reputation as an efficiency enthusiast of the most irrepressible sort. He eventually joined Rosenfeld’s research team at LBNL. Schipper couldn’t restrain himself when, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter urged Americans to conserve energy using arguments that Schipper considered unfounded.
Carter said that conserving energy “will demand that we make sacrifices and changes in our lives. To some degree, the sacrifices will be painful.” Schipper wrote an angry letter to Representative John Dingell (D–MI), arguing that conserving energy did not, in fact, require painful sacrifices. He explained that new energy-saving lights, windows, and car engines allowed consumers to live just as they always had yet burn less oil and coal. “You know what?” Schipper says today. “I was wrong. Carter was right….”
Schipper’s views are shaped by his own particular specialty: transportation, including cars. Since 1980, new cars have doubled the amount of mass they move with a gallon of gasoline, but U.S. car manufacturers used most of that efficiency gain to make cars bigger and more powerful, not more fuel conserving. The simplest and cheapest way to reduce energy use in transportation, Schipper says, is simply to require cars that are lighter, smaller, and less powerful. But because of fierce resistance to that idea, “we get all these interesting technological fixes, like plug-in hybrids, that are actually quite expensive.”
So Schipper has come around to the idea that conserving energy really does demand that people change their attitudes and the way they live. The single most important step in that direction, he says, is to make energy more expensive.
“We’re still playing 1970s games, thinking that we don’t have to confront consumers and industries with the real price of energy and carbon,” he says….
Rosenfeld, the man who once provided a professional home to many of these efficiency researchers, quietly agrees with Schipper. “Of course we need an energy tax,” he says simply. The “father of energy efficiency” is modest in physical stature and demeanor….