July 22nd, 2011


Founder and President, Regeneration Project

Chief Regulatory Officer, eMeter

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University


Energy underpins our civilization. It’s hardly surprising that convincing people to use less of something so tied to their comfort and survival is challenging. Smart policy has given California a head start – regulators severed the link between utilities’ earnings and sales long ago – but it’s not enough. We need to dig deeper to reap energy savings, said three experts convened by Climate One on July 22.

“I think there’s a downside in focusing too narrowly on money,” said Gregory Walton, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University. The dollars saved might not be significant enough to motivate some customers, especially the wealthy, to make changes, he said.

Instead, Walton and his team focus on creating the sense that saving energy is a community movement. We need to reach a point where saving energy becomes the social norm, he said, as is the case with wearing seat belts and recycling. “There’s a psychological transformation that happens,” Walton said. “It’s the same behavior, the same experience, but it comes to feel very different by virtue of its social need.”

There are still other levers to pull. “I have a bit of an advantage, in that most religions can use guilt,” joked Rev. Sally G. Bingham, President and Founder, California Interfaith Power & Light. “Sometimes it works. But mostly our congregations that are cutting their energy use are doing it for the right reasons,” she said.

“Fairly often a congregation will begin this process for money saving reasons, but also because they feel they are doing the right thing. That moral responsibility that lives in religion has been an amazing and wonderful motivator around values: Do we care about the future? How is our behavior affecting the future?

Chris King, Chief Regulatory Officer, eMeter, said customers have a financial incentive to save energy, and many are now aware of the link between energy production and emissions, but, to do more, they need better information. “There’s this strong desire for more information and ability to do something,” he said. “What they really want to know: How much energy does each of my appliances use?”

It’s helpful to know that electricity consumption spiked when I plugged in my toaster, he said, but without comparing it to the total, the bigger picture is lost. A better solution is to give customers a monthly breakdown for electricity use by all appliances, which he said can be done with up to 90% accuracy using a combination of the smart meter and algorithms.
– Justin Gerdes
July 22, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California