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Realizing the Behavioral Wedge — Getting Tenants Involved in Saving Energy

By: Mirele B. Goldsmith, Ph.D.

June 04, 2012

Foundation Communities, the largest provider of low income housing in Texas, offers tenants the opportunity to participate in Saving Green. The program introduces tenants to simple behavior changes such as adjusting thermostats, unplugging appliances and changing light bulbs. According to Stephanie Perrone-Freeborg, Director of Green Operations, on average the 500 enrolled tenants have reduced their electricity use by 20%.

Right here in New York City students in seven Yeshiva University residence halls participate in an annual competition to cut their electricity use. Michael Winkler, Director of the Office for Energy and Sustainability, reports that this competition resulted in a 15% reduction the first year and additional savings in each subsequent year.

These two initiatives signal that complicated and expensive building upgrades are not the only way to reduce energy use because changing behavior can result in significant cuts. In fact, in head to head comparisons behavior change programs have sometimes been more effective than conventional projects. For example, a study comparing energy use in four schools in Colorado found that a school with a traditional building used less electricity than a new LEED certified school due to staff and student behavior (Schelly & Cross, 2010).

Why were these efforts successful when so many efforts to persuade people to change their energy behavior seem ineffective? As an environmental psychologist, I think the answer to this question is obvious. In my experience, many efforts to change behavior are just not serious. Typically, tenants are handed a flyer and invited to a meeting where they are told about the many ways they can help the environment. No one should be surprised that this superficial effort does not make a difference.

In contrast, in Saving Green, Texas tenants are invited to participate in a series of three workshops that address how to save money on utilities, transportation and food and after each session tenants make a formal commitment to change specific behaviors. Following the workshops they are offered the option to sign up for a home visit during which a trained volunteer performs a walk-through and suggests energy saving measures. Tenants also have the option to participate in a four-month, energy-saving contest where they give permission for the local utility to analyze their electricity usage and include the results in data reported to Foundation Communities.

What makes Saving Green an effective behavior-change program? First, Saving Green takes tenants' interests and motivations into account by addressing several ways to reduce household expenses. The information provided is relevant. Second, it is offered in an engaging and interactive format utilizing materials developed by Enterprise Communities for low income tenants. Third, it targets specific, measurable changes that tenants can make right away. Tenants are encouraged to make a commitment to take action — a technique that is known to increase the likelihood that they will follow through. Fourth, tenants are provided with feedback about the results of their actions. Finally, Saving Green is only one component of Foundation Community's comprehensive sustainability program and tenants know their efforts are actively supported by management.

Our understanding of how to influence people's behavior around energy is growing rapidly. To review the basics of how to design an effective initiative, I recommend Doug McKenzie Mohr's book on Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM). Mohr lays out the key steps in creating a serious behavior change intervention: Uncovering barriers and benefits, selecting behavior change tools, piloting, and evaluation.

The first step in CBSM is scoping out current behaviors and attitudes of the target audience and identifying obstacles that may be in the way of behavior change. The importance of investigating potential obstacles was brought home to me when I served as consultant on Living Green, a project of the Supportive Housing Network of New York. In conjunction with a large Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) program, Ariel Krasnow, Director of Greening Housing Initiatives, with the assistance of Johanna Rose Walczyk and Sally Larsen, designed a pilot behavior change initiative tailored to the needs of tenants in supportive housing. I urged the Network to conduct a focus group with the staff of each building to inform the selection of specific behaviors to target. In a discussion with the staff at one building they learned tenants were not turning off their PTAC (packaged terminal air conditioning) units because many units lacked knobs. No amount of programmatic education could be expected to overcome this physical obstacle to implementing energy-saving behavior change.

McKenzie-Mohr and other experts emphasize that there are many different ways to influence people's behavior. In selecting among behavior change strategies change agents must consider the nature of the behavior to be changed. For instance, purchasing a new refrigerator is an indirect way to reduce energy use. The buyer must be influenced to make one decision and s/he is done. In contrast, curtailment of energy use may require repeated actions to turn off appliances and load management actions such as changing the time of energy use may require changes in other activities of daily life. Sometimes we want people to recognize less energy intensive options as desirable. These are known as lifestyle changes. Each type of behavior change takes place in a different setting, involves different obstacles, and must be addressed with a tailored strategy.

Behavior change tools and techniques are based on insights about human behavior. Past efforts to change energy use behavior often rested on narrow assumptions about human motivations. A review of programs implemented by utilities in California found most were based on a perception of human beings as economic actors who make decisions based on calculation of financial returns expected from investments in equipment, even though we know from our own experience that money is not our only motivator. Frequently, the prospect of future savings fails to motivate people at all and when economic incentives do not work other approaches must be employed.

What type of insights provide a basis for a behavior change strategy? One is that humans are social beings who make most decisions about how to act based on what we see others do. An eye-opening study conducted by Aronson and O'Leary found that 67% of students entering the shower room in a university fitness center would turn off the shower while soaping up if they saw two other people engaging in this water-saving behavior. This study spotlighted the power of social norms to influence the behavior of complete strangers. Since home energy use takes place in private, harnessing the power of social norms to influence tenant behavior often depends on finding ways to making energy-saving behavior visible to others. One strategy now being employed by electric utilities that harness the power of social norms is to send out bills that show customers how their energy use measures up to that of their neighbors. In the right circumstances it is possible to achieve a similar effect by publishing the names of tenants who have pledged to reduce their energy use, asking tenants to serve as spokespersons for efficiency measures, and posting charts in the lobby showing the energy use of an entire building over time.

Another useful and related insight about human behavior is that people are motivated by participation in a group. This is one of the reasons that Green Teams have been recognized as essential components in corporate sustainability initiatives. In David Gershon's Eco-Teams, small groups of neighbors support each other to implement behavior changes based on the Low Carbon Diet. Participants in Portland reported average household reductions of carbon emissions of 22%.

It is also important to recognize that changing tenant behavior takes place within a system. Tenants live in a building and their behavior is influenced by the actions of management. Obviously management can do a great deal to remove obstacles — both physical (like the PTAC knobs) and social (such as lack of trust between tenants and building staff or owners). Tenants are more likely to adopt new behaviors desired by management if the system supports the change. This means that initiatives to change tenant behavior must also address how to change the behavior of building staff. Changing employee behavior is an area that has received more attention than has tenant behavior. A helpful place to begin is with an approach developed by Jerry Dion's team at the Department of Energy which advises addressing how roles, rules and tools can be employed by organizations to incorporate the goal of reducing energy use.

What can we hope for with the smart application of the right behavioral strategies? Overall, studies estimate that US households could reduce their energy demand by 20–30%. Many of the most effective changes are low or no cost. Whether they require one-time purchasing decisions, use of available technology, or adoption of new daily habits, human behavior is the key to these savings. Researchers and practitioners are increasingly focused on how to achieve the reductions in energy use represented by this behavioral wedge. (Picture a pie chart of our total energy use. The slice that can be eliminated through behavior change is the behavioral wedge.) Just this past December, over 700 people attended the fifth annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference to explore how to make these reductions a reality. Initiatives to engage tenants in achieving the potential of the behavioral wedge will be successful if they are comprehensive, serious efforts that draw on what we already know about what works to change human behavior.

When I tell engineers that changing tenant behavior is a good way to save energy, they tell me that it's a very hard thing to do. I tell them that as a psychologist, I could never do what they do, but I think it is easier to change people's behavior than to construct a building. Here's my takeaway for getting tenants involved in saving energy: Don't just hand out a flyer. Do it right and it will work.


Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist, activist and founder of Green Strides Consulting. She currently directs the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an innovative program to mobilize non-profit organizations to respond to climate change by reducing energy use, implementing sustainable operations and educating their communities.

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