A Simple Idea to Reduce Energy Usage, Increase Energy Efficiency

The TED Conference closed last week. Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize got a lot of attention (and rightly so), but there were also some interesting presentations that touched on climate change. Bill Gates spoke about the need for clean energy. He emphasized a strategy of developing carbon neutral technologies over the next 20 years and then implementing them over the following 20 years, with the goal of have zero carbon emissions by 2050. You can’t really argue with the merits of this though the reality is far off.

In the meantime, we’re continually emitting carbon and increasing the probability of passing tipping points.  In the interim, another TED speaker talked about a great idea. David Cameron, the leader of the UK’s conservative party, suggested using behavioral psychology to alter people’s behavior. The mechanism? An electricity bill that shows your usage compared to all your neighbors as well as your most energy efficient neighbors. Talk about low-hanging fruit.

My electric bill already shows me my monthly consumption and how it compares to my annual average usage.

This isn’t an original idea.  A million homes in the US already have this type of electric bill.  The results don’t sound too dramatic: an energy decrease of 2-3%.  Consider this though: if every household saw this reduction, then 17,415,348 metric tons of carbon would be kept from the atmosphere.  That’s equal to the annual emissions of Estonia.

This is also one of those seemingly rare areas where conservatives and liberals can find common ground.  It's a winner for  conservatives because it reduces the roll of government in people's daily lives.  Nobody is telling you reduce your energy.  You can look at your energy bill and crank your thermostat up to 80 degrees and turn on every light in your house if you don’t care about your neighbors or the environment.  If you change your energy usage, it's due to social pressure and not government intervention.  It’s also cheap to implement a program like this.  All the data is already there, it would just take a small amount of start up to apply it in this way.

Liberals can get behind it because it deals with environmental issues.  It's a great way to get people more comfortable with taking actions to confront climate change by making them  more aware of their energy use.  If social pressures and not preaching convince people to reduce emissions, all the better.  Energy efficiency and energy independence are themes that resonate with Americans when talking about climate change so why not start literally right at home?

There are some drawbacks to this plan.  For one, there is a certain Big Brother element to it.  I pitched the idea to some friends the other night.  I wouldn’t put any of them in the libertarian camp, but a few got squeamish about the concept of having their privacy invaded.  However, in practice, very few people have actually declined the service in the areas where it’s been implemented.  And nobody is going to know your specific energy usage (although they may be able to infer a little bit about it if you have a Prius in the driveway).

Also, while preventing an Estonia’s worth of carbon from getting into the atmosphere is good, it by no means is a final solution to reducing carbon emissions.  The transportation, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors all need to make cuts in their emissions in the US and in other carbon-intensive economies to make a real difference in preventing catastrophic climate change.

Finally, the information on the utility bill doesn’t guarantee action.  But the idea of energy rationing is so deplorable to 99% of the population that no mandate on personal energy use has any chance of getting passed.  This is a great first step to getting people thinking more efficiently and feeling more comfortable with taking action on climate change, though.

It’s like slowly speeding up your car as opposed to jamming on the accelerator.  While some people would like to see us speed up fast on climate change, for better or worse, the general public in the US just doesn’t seem quite ready for us to go from 0-60 in a few seconds.  But this approach will be an important step to getting us towards to Gates’ goal of zero emissions by 2050.

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