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Why shutting off the lights today might be the most effective way to avoid climate change tomorrow

We all have a role to play in tackling the generational challenge that is climate change. Getting us there can start with small, impactful things that add up to large, global changes.

Overwhelmingly, 72 percent of Americans now say global warming is real, and nearly the entirety of the scientific community agrees that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts, we must cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions well before 2030. Time is not on our side.

While there are many potential solutions to slowing, and hopefully reversing, the effects of climate change, many of them take years to implement at scale: greening our electric supply, aggressive building codes for new construction, weatherizing older homes and buildings, and electrifying everything. There is one solution that can be leveraged immediately and just so happens to be the lowest-cost tool for achieving emission reductions: behavioral energy efficiency.

Behavior changes are the key
Changes in human behavior—when done at scale—can deliver immense reductions in emissions. While some human behavior changes may seem minor (e.g., shifting thermostat settings, utilizing sensors and timers, unplugging devices not in use), these actions deliver an outsized contribution to climate mitigation strategies. Behavior change is accessible to all and can be rapidly scaled, providing quantifiable benefits now while the grid is at its dirtiest. So, it surprised us to learn that most states don’t yet value the climate benefits of energy efficiencylet alone behavior-based savings.

To build the case, we partnered with the Analysis Group to evaluate energy efficiency program designs and policies for behavioral and non-behavioral (“structural”) programs with a focus on understanding the impact of timing (energy saved today affords more climate value than energy saved in the future) and scale on GHG emissions reductions.

As a quick refresher, behavioral programs change customer behavior by providing personalized information on energy usage, using time-tested behavioral economic approaches like descriptive norms, social proof, and ease. Structural programs require physical upgrades to a home such as HVAC replacements and whole home retrofits.

The results were striking: Human behavior changes achieve the same amount of emission reductions as structural programs in less time. Specifically, the research found that behavioral programs deliver reductions in carbon emissions and avoided climate damages for a quarter the cost of structural programs, and at a pace that’s five times faster. While we ultimately need to use every tool in our toolbox, this analysis demonstrates that human action matters. At scale, small changes in human behavior:

  • Achieve rapid reductions in GHG emissions
  • Can be delivered equitably across the population
  • Accelerate and deepen participation in structural programs, which contribute to further GHG reductions

We’ve spent the last few months sharing this research in various forums (with utility clients, regulators, and climate advocates). While the findings have been well received, we’ve discovered that very few stakeholders have thought about how to account for the time value of avoided emissions in policy. For instance, only a handful of states (16 to be precise) even account for the emissions benefits of energy efficiency in screening policies. And of those states that do, none are fully accounting for the net present value of avoided emissions (the grid is at its dirtiest today).

We’ve even found states pursuing counter-productive policies—ones that favor structural investments over behavior-based programs rather than optimizing for both.

Policy Recommendations

Tackling climate change requires real action from everyone: individuals, utilities, NGOs and governments. But, it starts with our policy makers urgently implementing the paradigms and programs that make a difference today. Specifically, we recommend that energy efficiency programs:

  • Incorporate an avoided GHG emissions goal that maps towards state or local climate targets.
  • Align cost-effectiveness screening policies with state public policy goals, such as GHG targets. This can be done by adopting a state-specific test using the NSPM for DERs, or by adopting the Societal Cost Test.
  • Account for the time scale of avoided emissions in screening calculations.
  • Adopt performance incentives that reward utilities for cost-effective, rapid reductions in emissions.
  • Support investments in all cost-effective energy efficiency; do not favor measures that deliver lifetime of savings (structural) over ones that deliver first year savings at scale (behavioral).

Most importantly, we all have a role to play, no matter how small. We can all start changing how we use energy today.

Oracle Utilities, including Opower, partners with the world's hardest working electric, water and natural gas companies to empower, enhance and enable your every single day. From cloud-native products and better grid management tools to support for every single step of your customer's journey, we have the answer. Learn more at oracle.com/utilities. Get specific product information as quick as clicking right here.

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