What Makes U.S. Energy Consumers Tick? Harnessing the Social Sciences to Answer That Question Can Help Lead the Nation to an Alternative-More Efficient-Energy Future

By Gallagher, Kelly Sims; Randell, John C. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

What Makes U.S. Energy Consumers Tick? Harnessing the Social Sciences to Answer That Question Can Help Lead the Nation to an Alternative-More Efficient-Energy Future


Gallagher, Kelly Sims, Randell, John C., Issues in Science and Technology


On October 6, 1997, during the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in Japan later that year, President William J. Clinton described barriers to the adoption of energy-efficient technologies at a White House Conference on climate change. Saying that he was "plagued" by the example of the compact fluorescent light bulb in the reading lamp in his living room, he asked himself, "Why isn't every light bulb in the White House like this?"

The president then put his finger on a central question about consumer behavior, asking, "Why are we not all doing this? ... we'd have to pay 60% more for the light bulb, but it would have three times the useful life. Therefore ... wed pay more up front, we'd save more money in the long run, and we'd use a whole lot less carbon. And why don't we do it? Why do we have any other kind of light bulbs in our homes? So when you get right down to it, now, this is where the rubber meets the road."

His remarks still resonate today. They highlight fundamental and persistent challenges in the United States to the use of energy efficiency as a potent tool for efforts to mitigate climate change, strengthen national energy security, and realize the economic benefits of a comprehensive, forward-thinking energy policy. These obstacles include individual and collective attitudes and behavior, household economics, and a paucity of readily available information on the benefits of energy-efficient consumer technologies. Understanding and managing such obstacles is the realm of the social sciences rather than technology and engineering, yet the social science of energy efficiency remains underappreciated by those who are best positioned to institute policies to promote energy efficiency as a solution to energy and climate problems.

Every president since Richard Nixon has devised a plan for changing the U.S. energy system, yet each one has failed to meet its objectives. The good news is that during the past four decades, the commercial availability of many advanced, efficient, and cleaner energy technologies has increased while their costs have fallen substantially. Partly as a result of the new technologies, the United States has steadily reduced the energy intensity of its economy. Nevertheless, it still ranks 134th among nations in the overall energy efficiency of its economy. Even among its industrialized economic competitors, the United States compares poorly in terms of energy intensity: According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it is about 38% more energy-intensive than Germany and Japan.

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Countless careful studies of the energy system, including those from the National Academies and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, have provided a clear idea of the technologies needed to transition to a less carbon-intensive economy, yet the U.S. energy system of today looks much like the one of four decades ago. The Department of Energy (DOE), though tasked with funding and conducting "use-inspired" research, devotes little time or investment to studying how newly developed energy technologies ultimately succeed or fail in the marketplace and how they affect U.S. society.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the DOE's investment in energy research, development, and demonstration has focused on supply-side technologies. Since 1985, the DOE has dedicated only 19% of its research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) spending to energy-efficient technologies, and nearly half of the total has gone to advanced vehicle technologies. The federal government has paid virtually no attention to the energy-related social sciences, yet the energy savings achievable through behavioral changes and the adoption of existing technologies are in many cases larger, cheaper, and more immediate than those achievable through further technology development, at least in the near term. More federal support for technological RD&D is certainly sorely needed, but those investments could be significantly leveraged through the application of social and behavioral research on technology acceptance and use. …

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