Why People Aren’t Sold on Energy Efficiency in their Homes

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How many residents of Boulder, Colorado, does it take to screw in a light bulb? 100,000: Taxpayers foot the bill for teams of techies to go door-to-door and caulk windows, swap old light bulbs for compact fluorescent ones, and install programmable thermostats, all in the name of energy efficiency. Should saving energy—and money—be this difficult to achieve?

Even in an exceptionally progressive, environmentally sensitive town like Boulder, it seems nearly impossible to get residents to lift a finger, spend a buck, or change their habits to save the planet. From a WSJ story over the weekend:

“What we’ve found is that for the vast majority of people, it’s exceedingly difficult to get them to do much of anything,” says Kevin Doran, a senior research fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Convincing business owners and residents to tackle even the tiniest energy-saving projects seems as easy as convincing a child to eat his vegetables—and presumably, that’s also difficult in healthy, outdoorsy Boulder. When it comes to a child at the dinner table, explaining the wonderful long-term benefits of broccoli doesn’t do the trick. Not when a child knows and craves the taste of extra salty French fries. So what does a parent do? Resort to bribery. Finish your veggies and you can have some ice cream or a cookie—or heck, maybe even a dollar. Anything is worth a shot after you’ve been sitting at the dinner table for 90 minutes.

Similarly, when it comes to businesses and homeowners, explaining the wonderful long-term benefits of extra insulation and low-flow toilets doesn’t work either. Not on a broad scale, not yet anyway. So what does the government and environmental groups do? Resort to bribery with free home energy audits, a cash for caulkers program, and other incentives that subsidize the purchase of energy-efficient appliances and the like.

Boulder has discovered, however, that even this sort of bribery doesn’t work. From the WSJ:

Boulder has found that financial incentives and an intense publicity campaign aren’t enough to spur most homeowners to action, even in a city so environmentally conscious that the college football stadium won’t sell potato chips because the packaging isn’t recyclable…

Since 2006, Boulder has subsidized about 750 home energy audits. Even after the subsidy, the audits cost each homeowner up to $200, so only the most committed signed up. Still, follow-up surveys found half didn’t implement even the simplest recommendations, despite incentives such as discounts on energy-efficient bulbs and rebates for attic insulation.

About 75 businesses got free audits; they made so few changes that they collectively saved just one-fifth of the energy auditors estimated they were wasting.

Some of homeowners who received free audits and conscientiously made changes are now wondering why they bothered:

Kathie Joyner, an environmental planner, was one of the first to get a city-subsidized home-energy audit, back in 2006. She eagerly trailed the auditor through her modest bungalow, watching as he pointed out leaks and inefficiencies. He promised she could slash her utility bills by a third.

Ms. Joyner vowed to get to work. But tackling the whole list would have cost $4,000. She ended up spending less than $1,000, mostly on insulation and weather-stripping. The rest of the advice, she set aside. “It just kind of went out of my brain,” she says.

Three years later, Ms. Joyner says she hasn’t noticed lower energy bills, in part because of rising rates and fluctuations in her electricity use depending on the weather. Frustrated, she says she isn’t sure her investment paid off, either for her pocketbook or the planet.

Yikes. If you can’t convince an environmental planner in Boulder, Colorado, of the wisdom of energy-efficiency upgrades, how in the world are you going to not get laughed off the property of a McMansion owner in the exurbs of Houston?

Nonetheless, Boulder is pushing forward with new initiatives, including one that uses $370,000 in federal stimulus money to pay contractors to go install light bulbs in people’s homes. This one is the equivalent of chewing up the broccoli for a child who doesn’t want to eat it:

In the program, dubbed “Two Techs in a Truck,” as many as 15 energy-efficiency teams will go door-to-door. They’ll ask home and business owners for permission to caulk windows, change bulbs and install low-flow showerheads and programmable thermostats—all at taxpayer expense. The techs will set up clothes racks in laundry rooms as a reminder to use the dryer less often. They’ll even pop into the garage and inflate tires to the optimum pressure for fuel efficiency.

Residents who allow someone to come into their homes and do work they’d normally have to pay someone to do even get gold stars, of sorts. City officials plan on posting congratulatory signs on your front lawn if you’re brave and forward-thinking enough to let someone slave away in your home at no charge. This, I suppose, is the equivalent of putting a child’s art work on the fridge.

Why is this energy efficiency business all so difficult to achieve? It sure seems like we, the taxpayers, have to waste a lot of money in order to save a little energy.

Laziness, for sure, holds a lot of people back from taking on energy-efficiency projects. Also, there will always be the stubborn, leave-me-alone folks out there, who dig their heels in for every new thing, whether it makes sense or not. But the simplest explanation for why Boulder feels it must send techs to people’s homes is that the people—lots of them, apparently—aren’t convinced the projects are worth the trouble.

Merely saying what these improvements will do is not enough. Proof is needed. The forces chatting up energy efficiency must really prove what these improvements can do. How? Spreadsheets and brochures that list projected costs and expenses don’t work. But when you hear that your neighbor pays half of what you do to heat his home, that has an impact. Guarantees are nice too—how about a flat-price utility bill that’s guaranteed not to skyrocket two months after the contractors are done? If these improvements really do save energy and money, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Treating homeowners like children doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Related:
Are You Stupid to Trust SmartMeters, Unit Prices, and Energy Star Labels?
Compete for the Energy Efficiency Crown (and Save Money While You’re at It)

2 comments
Conserve
Conserve

Broccoli has been around forever and there are either people who eat and those who don’t. No one cares. Our struggle is that energy efficiency is not exactly something we can leave up to choice if the majority doesn’t get on board.

Not everyone who does energy improvements is concerned with high utility bills. More times than not homeowners are concerned with comfort and if their investment can improve comfort, or indoor air quality, it makes sense for them. Experienced contractors know how to make improvements that ultimately benefit what the homeowner wants and in the end energy reduction does happen regardless of the interest. The Colorado programs provide energy advisors and this has shown successful in not only energy reduction, but educated homeowners who can carry it forward.  

TedKidd
TedKidd

"Three years later, Ms. Joyner says she hasn’t noticed lower energy bills, in part because of rising rates and fluctuations in her electricity use depending on the weather. Frustrated, she says she isn’t sure her investment paid off, either for her pocketbook or the planet."

I don't think it's people aren't motivated to save money or energy, it's that promises have no accountability, and tend not to deliver. People simply don't like spending money on burgers with no beef.