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A Conversation with Jim Sweeney, Director of Stanford’s Energy Efficiency Center

3p Contributor | Tuesday October 5th, 2010 | 0 Comments

By Charles Shereda Part I: Behavior and Efficiency:  More Information, Please

In this first of two installments, Jim Sweeney and I talk about the link between information and behavior when it comes to energy efficiency. Sweeney directs Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, and is a Convening Director of the upcoming Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference, which takes place in Sacramento in November. The PEEC promotes energy efficiency, focusing on measures that make economic sense.

3P: You’ve said behavior is one of the biggest factors in improving efficiency. What’s surprised you as you’ve looked into the behavior issue?

Sweeney: That there are many things people do that are really not optimal economically, but they keep doing them. For instance, new vehicle purchases. In discussions I’ve had with many people, when they bought new cars, they looked very carefully at the purchase cost, but they didn’t figure out the gasoline cost over several years or the life of the car, even though that’s a real out-of-pocket cost. It seems to be a relatively limited number of people who go through that as a systematic assessment. Or electricity. Very few people (and this is not so surprising) know the relationship between what they do and their electric bill. That is, how much it’s caused by air conditioning or leaving televisions or lights on, or by electric water heaters. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for most people to get information about the link between their actions and their utility expense at the end of the month. The best analogy that I’ve heard is, imagine that you go to your grocery store and you buy a lot of foods but nothing has a price tag. At the end of the month the store sends you a bill with a single line item titled, “Food Costs this Month.”

3P: Nice analogy. You’ve said before that one key to getting behavioral changes to stick over time is through better measurement. In the two examples you just gave, what solutions could provide that measurement?

Sweeney: We now have opportunities with different sensors, either smart meters that connect to a home area network or send real-time information to consumers, or capabilities put into larger appliances like air conditioners, so that their electrical consumption is conveyed back to some central place which can then provide it to the consumer. Or, individual meters at the outlet that give that same information. Through these devices people can understand that there are financial consequences to their decisions – it’s like attaching the price tag. The essential parts of that technology such as smart meters are starting to be deployed. The next part is the communication back to consumers. Knowing how and what to communicate, what devices provide that information to the consumer, and how to do it in a way that the consumer finds useful rather than a distraction… all of that’s not understood yet. [Note: Among the PEEC’s research projects is a DOE-funded study to determine what feedback to give to consumers on their use of electricity in different appliances.]

3P: Will people see the value in these devices and pay for them separately, or will they be embedded in the appliances?

Sweeney: It can work either way, the jury’s very much out on that. It’s unknown whether it’s worth the additional cost to consumers – but I think it is going to be. Whether a separate, integrated device is going to be appropriate or whether it’s something that pops up on a person’s computer screen… we just don’t know yet. Embedding wireless communication devices into major appliances is pretty inexpensive now and it’s getting cheaper, so that’s also a possibility.

3P: What about the case of the new car purchase?

Sweeney: We’ve actually moved a lot on that front recently. The label on new cars doesn’t just have the EPA estimate of miles per gallon, it now has a statement that says, if you drive the car this average number of miles, it will cost so much per year for gasoline at a certain price. That’s a starting point for people to see their operating cost per year. I think that’s a major step. What we still don’t know is how much this will change decisions. But a long time ago, we did this for refrigerators. When you buy a refrigerator there’s a big yellow label on the front that tells you the cost per year to operate, with a range of costs for this size class, and here’s where this one falls in that range. And that turns out to be quite motivational for people because, as opposed to Lake Wobegon, you don’t want to be above average at this. So in refrigerators this was very effective. We’ve just recently started doing it in passenger cars and light-duty trucks, and I think that’s a step forward.

3P: And it becomes one of the factors involved in their decision making process?

Sweeney: Yes, it becomes… see, when people are buying cars, there are a lot of different things they want to look at – the roominess, the style, the sense of quality, other maintenance costs. But at least this puts operating costs and first purchase costs basically on a level playing field of information to consumers.

So, through innovative devices and better labeling, we’ll have more information and hence make more rational choices that favor efficiency. What do you think? What else, if anything, is needed to change behavior? In the next installment of this interview, we’ll look at the biggest efficiency bangs for the bucks.

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Charles Shereda is a computer scientist turned clean tech entrepreneur.  He is passionate about empowering people with the means to lower energy costs and improve their lives in the process. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School.


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