Two years ago I reported dramatic reductions in my home energy use on this blog. Between 2007 and 2009 I cut my gas usage by 34% and my electric usage by 55%. Needless to say I was pretty pleased with myself for this achievement and none too shy about spreading the news. I was also happy to share because I believed that my experience could serve as a model for others seeking to lower their energy bills and that my savings were replicable.
My message? That behavior change had incredible power to drive down energy usage. This wasn’t what I anticipated when I first began to work at reducing our home’s energy use: I had expected that efficiency upgrades (insulation, air sealing and better equipment) would have a much bigger impact on our energy use than conservation (things like turning lights off, adjusting thermostat settings, or washing our clothes in cold water). Of course, I was practicing and preaching the virtues of making sustainable choices all along, but I didn’t really think these would have a big impact. Boy was I surprised when I began to evaluate our savings in light of the actions we had taken!
By way of illustration, consider our summertime electricity use. Between June-September of 2006 we consumed just over 1200 KWH each month. Between June-September of 2011 we used 600 KWH each month: half of what we consumed 5 years prior.
Can you guess how we did it? Yes, we insulated our attic, which allowed our air handler to run more efficiently (just think how much harder an air handler has to work if it’s located in a 100 degree attic, as opposed to a 78 degree home). But, no, we didn’t install a more efficient HVAC system. And, no, we didn’t even seal our ductwork. Mostly we just turned the AC off and ran fans instead (except on the hottest days; even I’m not crazy enough to suffer through several days of 90+ degree heat without using central AC). So… we cut our summertime electric bill in half simply by flicking a switch–oh, and “investing” in fans, like this ceiling fan we put in our bedroom.
Pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. Take another look at that chart. Do you notice that the trend line started to edge back up slightly after bottoming out in 2009? Although we used slightly less electricity in the summer of 2011 than in the summer of 2010, in both years we used more electricity that in the summer of 2009. At the same time, we’ve also been backsliding a little on gas usage, and our total energy use (in BTUs) was slightly higher in 2011 than in 2010.
What happened between 2009 and now? Not much, other than our two new entertainment systems. While these systems use more electricity than our old-school TV did, we don’t use them all that much and power them down completely when we aren’t using them (we keep vampire power to a minimum in our house). So they don’t account for much of the uptick.
I suspect that this uptick is mostly due to a loss of focus. We just aren’t paying as close attention to our energy consumption now that we’ve achieved such marked reductions. And we’re slipping back into some bad habits: we’re leaving lights on more; we’re more likely to bump up the thermostat when we’re chilly; we’re using our clothes dryer more.
So what does this mean? First, that the power of behavior cuts both ways. Just as behavior change can result in dramatic reductions in energy use, backsliding can easily erode those savings. It reminds me of lifestyle changes: who among us hasn’t achieved weight loss or exercise goals only to watch them slip away as bad habits return to roost?
Which leads right to my second point: behavior change isn’t as easy as it seems. After all, most of us know what’s required in order to lose weight, be stronger, or cut our energy bills. We may even be successful at achieving these goals in the short-term. Yet as time goes on, many of us fail to sustain our achievements and end up back where we started.
Which leads to my third point: behavior change alone won’t get us where we need to go. We can’t just tell people to conserve and expect them to do so. We can’t even teach them how to conserve and expect them to do so. We need to do a lot of other things too l
- design and engineer our infrastructure to facilitate conservation
- sett goals, create support systems (Weight Watchers for energy use?), provide rewards for success, and perhaps even penalize people for failure.
- reevaluate and aggressively realign our political and economic systems to prioritize the public good over corporate profits, and the welfare of future generations over short-term and myopic fixes to immediate problems.
Lacking a holistic vision, policy and strategy, behavior change is likely to fail in the long-term. We may succeed in the short-term but soon enough we’ll be back to consuming calories and carbon-based fuels we can no longer afford.