A Field Guide to Utility-Run Behavior Programs: Making Sense of the Variety

Blog Post | March 20, 2014 - 1:53 pm

The ACEEE Field Guide to Utility-run Behavior Programs, released in December, is the first comparative analysis of utility-run behavior programs. Practitioners, evaluators, and regulators can now use the guide to design and assess strategies and develop policies for utility-run behavior programs. The problem has been that, when state and local stakeholders thought about creating behavioral programs, they would encounter barriers. These barriers could include questions about cost effectiveness, or the high degree of uncertainty and confounding factors that surround dealing with human behavior. At the same time, and potentially tipping the balance in favor of behavioral programs, many states are looking for new ways to reach the savings targets they have set, and behavior programs are enticing as a cost effective way to reach significant energy savings.

The Field Guide attempts to answer some of these questions. The main takeaways from the report for regulators and state energy officials are that: 1) behavior programs can be just as cost-effective as other EE programs, 2) behavior programs are diverse in type and effect, and 3) different behavior programs can suit the varied needs of investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, and co-operatives. Behavior programs are within range of most energy-efficiency programs; while only a limited number of program types provided cost and savings data, we found that the cost of saved energy from programs providing data was less than two cents per kilowatt-hour on average. Research shows that behavior programs can deliver consistent savings at scale. These programs can also reach new audiences for traditional offerings through using community-based social marketing. Finally, behavior programs can integrate well with physical/component/widget programs.

Programs can achieve greater impact and deeper savings by incorporating insights from social and behavioral sciences. When reviewing proposals for behavior-change programs, regulators and state energy officials should ask: Which energy usage behaviors will be changed? Are the interventions grounded in social and behavioral science? What specific behavioral strategy will be used in the program? Will the intervention have the ability to be evaluated?

Regulators, administrators, designers, and evaluators need to speak a common language around behavior programs. A common language eliminates confusion over terms. The taxonomy in the Field Guide offers that common language and clarity. The Field Guide is a reference that allows practitioners to compare what is being offered to what has already been on the market. It enables them to gain familiarity with some of the social science insights being used in the field today, thus helping program operators and their teams set expectations for performance from behavior programs.

Based on our research, several recommendations have emerged:

  • Require program administrators to share information. The collection and reporting of data from behavior programs currently varies wildly by state. Crafting a state-wide strategy for behavior would help generate consistent data.
  • Coordinate efforts regionally. We recommend that utilities coordinate their behavior program efforts with others in their region. Energy Trust of Oregon, for example, has had success in coordinating with Puget Sound Energy in Seattle, in part due to their similar customer bases and climate.
  • Piggyback small programs on larger ones. Scale may also affect the performance and cost effectiveness of specific program types (e.g. home energy audits and reports) so we suggest that smaller organizations may want to piggyback on the efforts of larger regional suppliers. Smaller coops want to be strategic and consider a game-based program or a community-based social marketing program to round out other messaging.

Using the principles of ‘track, share, and coordinate,’ it is our hope that utilities will develop program strategies that are successful in connecting with customers, cost-effective in their deployment, and consistent in delivering substantial energy savings.