Nov. 13, 2012

Neighbors slash energy waste in do-it-yourself, grassroots programs

By Mark Golden

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--Two community-based, hands-on programs to help consumers reduce energy use have resulted in impressive results, though data is preliminary and slight in both cases.

In Syracuse, teams of five to eight households worked through a handful of tasks like calculating electricity use to signing up for an energy assessment of their home. Prior to the tasks, voluntary participants used 4 percent less electricity than a control group in the study, funded by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. After the tasks, participants used 29 percent less power.

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Similarly, North Carolina neighbors met in each other’s homes for hands on lessons in such things as weather stripping doors and insulating water heaters. Participants in Warren County went from having utility bills about 20 percent higher than the average in their area before the workshops to 17.5 percent lower afterward, according to the non-profit developer of the program.

“The sample size is small and we need a lot more data,” said Dan Curry of Clean Energy Durham. “But it’s really encouraging. Some change in behavior is happening.”

The New York agency’s Marsha Walton echoed that sentiment and added that participants also raised their expectations of what they ought to do. “The preliminary data shows changes in both recurring behaviors like turning off electronics not in use and one-time actions like caulking leaks. It also shows a change in social norms,” Walton said.

The results come with caveats, Walton and Curry told attendees at the annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference in Sacramento on Tuesday. How long the effects hold remains to be seen in a field that has struggled with persistence. Also, the “Central New York Energy Challenge” ended up with a very small control group in the initial trial, and participants were clearly more knowledgeable than average about energy use. The North Carolina project, which also held workshops in Durham, has several professors from Duke University and the University of North Carolina involved as volunteers, Curry said, but none are helping to structure the project as part of a formal study. The New York project’s scientific advisor is Wesley Schultz, a California State University psychology professor and leader in the field of energy behavior change.

Nevertheless, the impact of the peer-to-peer projects seem to dwarf that of broad, utility sponsored incentive programs, which typically reduce use by 1-3 percent. “We started in 2007 with a door-to-door survey asking people if they would be willing to attend a two-hour energy savings workshop if it was organized by one of their neighbors,” said Curry. “Almost 50% more were likely to go than if it were utility sponsored.”

More than half of workshop attendees taught at least one other neighbor, Curry added. Several went on to organize workshops in their homes, even though voluntary leaders of the “Pete Street” program hands-on workshops require 18 hours of training. An initial group of 44 participants, said Curry, ended up teaching an additional 117 people. The do-it-yourself projects cannot account for all the energy savings. Participants learn how they can change their energy consumption behavior at an informational workshop that precedes the hands-on one.

Clean Energy Durham is making its program available, for a fee, to any U.S. utility, city or county government, or utility seeking to cut energy waste. The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority also plans to refine and expand its program, though within the state.

The annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference is sponsored by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the University of California’s California Institute for Energy & the Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)


Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629,