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June 22, 2017

Behavior Counts: Recognizing Behavior Programs as a Resource

April 3, 2015

by David Younan-Montgomery, Alliance to Save Energy (ASE)

The concept of behavior-based energy efficiency is simple: Lights turned off as the last person leaves a room don’t use electricity, saving both energy and money. In U.S. schools, where energy costs are estimated at $6-8 billion a year and budgets, behavior change programs provide an obvious pathway to reduce energy demand and save money for higher priority educational needs. It’s estimated that of the energy used in a school building, as much as 30% is wasted. Much of that can be saved through simple behaviors such as optimizing light levels, adjusting HVAC set-points, closing doors and windows, and activating sleep modes on computers. Yet while this logic is straightforward, both the implementation of these changes and the opportunity for utilities to use these programs as an efficiency resource have proven challenging.

Whole-School Engagement

In response to growing economic and environmental imperatives, significant resources are being invested to “green” schools. Most of the emphasis has been placed on capital projects that focus on modernizing and retrofitting school infrastructure but fail to engage students and other building occupants. “Implementing retrofits without training the staff, building operators, and tenants/students precludes a significant amount of the potential energy savings, not to mention the education benefits,” states Joey Barr, former Expert Program Manager of Proposition 39 and Schools at Pacific Gas & Electric. “One can install the most innovative products and technologies, but if the operators and users of the space, including students, do not know how to use it properly or turn it off, the benefits and potential savings are mitigated.” In fact, some of the most energy-intensive schools are those constructed in the last five years—not because their hardware is outdated, but because their occupants don’t know how to use the new technologies efficiently.

This holistic view of schools’ energy use suggests a missing piece in most current efficiency strategies: whole-school engagement. This approach involves the participation of all members of the school community. “The administrators can lead by scheduling facility use in ways that conserve energy and setting the example by turning systems off as soon as they are no longer needed,” explains Bob Schoch, Director of Business Administration for North Penn School District. “Teachers and other staff can help troubleshoot by reporting problems with the HVAC equipment so that it can be repaired quickly.” Students in particular are in a unique position to change the culture of their schools from business as usual to one in which buildings become models of energy efficient behavior. When students are empowered to become agents and messengers of efficiency, energy conservation takes root at every level of the school community.

“Students have played significant roles in many of the most successful school energy management programs and in the implementation of other green initiatives as well,” Mr. Schoch continues. “Their enthusiasm and creativity helps overcome the resistance to change many adults experience.” Mr. Schoch’s own school district was awarded the 2013 EPA Energy Star Partner of the Year Award for reducing their energy use by over 28% through behavior-based change. Theirs is a powerful example of the results that can be achieved through whole-school engagement.

The example of North Penn illustrates that behavior-change and resource programs are more intertwined than we think. How technologies are used in the space can have as great an impact on savings as the technologies themselves. Are the lights left on all day—or all night? Are classrooms or hallways over-lit? Are technologies like occupancy sensors working properly? It takes occupancy engagement and facilities management to make sure that new systems are being used properly and functioning as designed. And occupancy engagement comes at a fraction of the cost of most capital investments. So why aren’t these two approaches working hand-in-hand?

Challenges to Behavior-Change Programs

Finding Funding

When school districts look for energy efficiency assistance, they often turn to their utility providers or to grant opportunities. In the budgets of these funders, behavior-based programs traditionally take a back seat to capital upgrades, due to the perception that their energy savings are less reliable than those realized through retrofits. Many investor-owned utilities—subject to the regulations of public utility commissions (PUCs)—are constrained by the stringency of the PUC’s measurement requirements from funding behavior programs to meet their efficiency targets. The PUC’s, of course, are obligated to make sure that ratepayers’ dollars are spent on efficiency measures that really work.

The same issue arose in the implementation of California’s historic school efficiency bill, Proposition 39. In November 2012, California voters approved Prop 39, allocating an estimated $2.75 billion to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in schools. However, while there are a range of projects that qualify for funding, behavior change programs are not yet among them. Including student engagement could open the door to millions of dollars of additional savings, and opportunities to turn one-time retrofit projects into long-lived learning laboratories.

Designing Effective Behavior Change Programs

Experimental Design and EM&V

If the savings from energy-efficient behavior seems so obvious, why is it so hard to measure? One problem is the wide variety of behavior programs available, ranging from those that simply distribute lesson plan resources to teachers, to those that provide comprehensive frameworks, tools, and specialized training. More robust programs go further, providing support throughout the year to implement an organized program that engages students and measures resulting energy savings. With so many different program designs, it is impossible to apply uniform assumptions of energy savings. For a program to provide predictable, consistent results, it has to be carefully designed, strictly implemented, and monitored on an ongoing basis.

The process by which efficiency program can be assessed—evaluation, measurement, and verification (EM&V)—should begin not after the program is underway, but as the program is being developed. This should can be accomplished through a carefully crafted Theory and Logic model. A Theory and Logic model is a blueprint of program design that clearly delineates the program’s objectives, strategies, activities, causally linked to near-term, intermediate, and long-term outcomes. All activities and outcomes must be tracked through documentation and metrics that allow the program to be analyzed during and after implementation. As with a scientific experiment, rigorous adherence to the T&L model means the program results will be predictable and replicable. To ensure that a program meets these standards, program designers should seeks guidance from evaluators at the outset. Evaluators can help identify the relevant metrics to be followed, and make sure that program activities and aligned to achieve the desired outcomes.

Just as EM&V begins before program implementation, it should continue afterward. A major question hanging over behavior programs has to do with their persistence, that is, how long their effects last after the intervention period has ended. To measure this, metrics must be tracked post-intervention, to see if behavior changes sustains, or reverts to the mean.

Controlling the Variables

Accurately measuring the impacts of a behavioral energy efficiency program requires that the experimental design involve a “control” and “treatment” group. Randomly assigning participants from within the qualified pool to both groups is termed a Randomized Control Trial (RCT), and is the gold-standard for program design. Comparing the results of a program with a “control” group that has similar features allows evaluators to answer the question “What would have happened in the absence of the program?” Participants in both groups need to be randomly selected, which can prove to be difficult in the environment of a school district. The imposition of a program on a busy school—or the withholding of a resource from an interested school—can be disruptive in and of itself. In such situations, Randomized Encouragement Design (RED), in which subject schools are offered incentives to opt in or out, can be a viable alternative. While statistical validity increases with numbers, it is usually a good idea to start small by linking an RCT or RED with a pilot that allows for changes in experimental design, selection criteria and measureable outcomes in following years.

Social Science Principles

In addition to the rigorous framework of program design, the content of behavior programs should be rooted in social science research. This helps to link the activities to outcomes, and make sure the resources of the program are aligned with their goals. Social scientists draw on years of cutting edge research that points towards those intervention strategies have proven most successful in creating lasting change. Strategies that encourage commitment to action—for instance, through pledges—create a sense of responsibility among the school community. Research has also shown that providing frequent feedback about energy consumption can encourage participants to increase their efforts. Popular feedback strategies involve utilizing social norms that present energy efficiency behaviors as commonly accepted and widely adopted. Framing behavior change as a competition increases buy-in through team-building. The most effective behavior change strategies, particularly in schools, leverage more than one type of intervention to affect behavior. Some of the most successful energy efficiency education programs combine frequent feedback about with rewards and social comparison. The result is a group of committed, driven, and engaged individuals, all striving to create a more efficient culture in their school.

The application of these insights within the world of energy efficiency education is easier said than done. The methodology behind effective behavior change programs has emerged from social sciences, a field that may be unfamiliar to regulators and utilities. Regulators and utilities don’t tend to be experts in the social science research that provides the rationale for behavior change programs, just as social scientists are not accustomed to the world of EM&V experts. Dr. Mazur provides an apt illustration of the dilemma; “I could draw a picture of a bridge, but as I’m not an engineer you wouldn’t want to build it,” she said. The task of a behavior-as-resource program design is to build the bridge between social science and efficiency engineering.

Market Transformation

Quantifying behavior change will never be as simple as comparing the efficiency of a T12 and T5 light bulb. But that does not mean that one avenue to efficiency should preclude the other. Finding a way to recognize the impact of behavior is the key to increasing efficiency and transforming how today’s and tomorrow’s consumers view and use energy. For Mr. Barr the challenge lies in getting regulators to understand that there is an equilibrium between having the exact kWh savings down to the nth degree and enabling an innovative approach. “There can be a conservative estimate for savings, because the same program will not yield the same savings every time.

However, currently very few, if any, programs are allowed because the regulators are waiting for an exact science, methodology, and savings per ‘treatment’, and that should not be a prerequisite to support innovation.” Barr adds, “The regulators need to change their mindset from a widget-based paradigm to one more focused on market transformation. Garnering kWh savings in this quarter is important, but so is teaching the next generation to think about energy conservation and efficiency so it is imbedded. Education is key; educating consumers for the next 50 years.” This does not eliminate the need for behavior programs to demonstrate evaluable results; but it does again show the need for compromise and collaboration between the worlds of EM&V and human engagement.

Regulators and utilities miss out on billions of dollars in immediate and long term energy savings by leaving behavior change out of their efficiency portfolios. Leveraging the best that behavior change programs have to offer will require not only wide-spread recognition of their value, but also renewed commitment to testing and refining their methods. “In addition to stronger means of evaluating and modeling the impacts of behavior change, case study research should be conducted into the impacts of these programs in various types of facilities,” argues Mr. Schoch. As these measures are adopted on a larger scale, the value of behavior change as a vital component in achieving efficiency targets will continue to grow. The only question that remains is how long it will take regulators and utilities to develop and accept them.