December 9, 2014

DOE's Moniz: Research on behavior essential to meeting climate and energy goals, despite funding difficulties

By Mark Golden

WASHINGTON, DC—When new energy technologies are developed, how do you get people to use them? What market conditions are necessary for their adoption? How do you motivate consumers to use energy more efficiently?

Ernie MonizThese are a few of the critical questions that must be answered by social science research if the United States is to meet its goals on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said Tuesday at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference.

“I have never seen a credible solution to our climate change challenge without a major demand-side contribution,” said Moniz. “The social sciences can and must help us in meeting these climate and energy challenges.”

Nevertheless, getting Congress to approve funding for research in energy economics, psychology and behavior is tricky. What little funding does get through is essentially buried in programs focused on technology.

“We are not setting up an office of social science research. First of all, that would be suicidal, as all kinds of mission questions would arise,” said Moniz. “But social science research should be fully integrated in the DOE research agenda.”

In a recent agreement with China, President Barack Obama committed the United States to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2026. Secretary Moniz said everyone sees that goal as “a stretch.”

“We can see our way there without comprehensive legislation, but getting the last few percent is really tough. Behavioral approaches are essential,” said Moniz, citing as an example the use of peer comparisons as a way of getting people to cut energy waste at both home and work.

The vast majority of the approximately $9 billion a year the DOE spends on research and development concerns technology, such as solar power, fuel cells, and new types of batteries. However, the department has funded some behavior-based research, notably a program at Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center.

And, Moniz said, the DOE sets efficiency standards on home appliances, electric motors, and many other types of equipment. Since President Obama took office, it had set 30 new standards that together have eliminated three billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The department plans to set 12 more standards next year and continue to do so in the final year of the Obama administration.

“In 2016, we’re going to run through the tape. These efficiency standards are very important,” the secretary said.

The DOE can also use its “convening power” to promote energy efficient behavior. In its Better Buildings Challenge program, for example, companies voluntarily seek to reduce energy consumption and share information on how to do that. The office supply chain store Staples had a corporate-wide “treasure hunt” that rewarded staff for finding inefficiencies, said Moniz, “and they met their 20 percent reduction goal in no time at all.”

A drop in the bucket
Though the vote of confidence was welcomed by participants at the annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference, most see federal spending on social science-based research as miniscule. Maxine Savitz, who introduced the secretary on Tuesday, said in conversation later that the DOE and National Science Foundation together spend just $25 million a year on research in the social sciences. Savitz, an engineer who led energy efficiency efforts at the DOE from 1979 to 1983, said spending on social sciences came to a near halt starting with the election of Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981. Many conservative members of Congress today see social science research by the federal government, whether on energy, health or education, as an attempt at mind control, she explained.

Moniz himself, prior to becoming energy secretary in 2013, was part of group that decried the lack of research on behavior at the DOE and called for a multidisciplinary social science research program.

“The DOE’s energy mission is to support basic and ‘use-inspired’ research, but in fact it devotes little time or investment to understanding how energy technologies ultimately succeed in the marketplace,” the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology reported in 2010.

The DOE, along with the National Science Foundation, “should initiate a multidisciplinary social science research program to examine the U.S. energy technology innovation ecosystem, including its actors, functions, processes and outcomes,” the advisors, including Moniz, recommended.

The department annually requests more money for research on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and Congress annually denies the increase. So, for now, the research is more piecemeal than comprehensive. The DOE has committed $9 million over three years to investigate strategies to accelerate the pace of adoption for solar energy technologies. This program has learned that the single biggest factor for homeowners installing solar panels is if a neighbor has installed them. Understanding these early adopters, therefore, is vital, Moniz said Tuesday.

Behavior, Energy & Climate Change is an international conference focused on understanding the behavior and decision-making of individuals and organizations, and using that knowledge to help accelerate the transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon future. BECC is organized by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the University of California’s California Institute for Energy & Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which is based in Washington, DC.
(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)

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Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629,