To reduce electricity use, tell people about asthma

Do you know how much energy your laptop uses while you leave it plugged in all night? How about your television or coffee maker? Or even a single light bulb? More importantly, do you care?

You should care, because energy production has some serious health implications. It’s been associated with premature death and with maladies like cancer, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. The less energy you use, the less energy needs to be generated, and the healthier your community might be. At least, that’s the idea.

Here’s another reason to care. Using less energy means your electricity bill will be cheaper. That’s more money in your pocket to spend on Chinese food take-out, or your daily coffee addiction, or whatever else you want.

Which of those arguments was more persuasive to you? If you’re like the vast majority of researchers, you might have picked the second, price-related incentive. Indeed, for several decades, conservation-related interventions with regards to energy use have focused on making people more aware of the financial benefits to unplugging their laptops after the battery gets full. And yet, people still seem to be wasting electricity.

UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability researchers Omar I. Asensio and Magali A. Delmas wondered if highlighting the health-related implications of energy generation would be a more effective deterrent against waste. Theoretically, it should be remarkably effective. “Learning that one’s marginal consumption imposes social costs on others can lead to different moral sensitivities to external health damages,” they argue, pointing out that there are times when one can be motivated to change their behavior to avoid harming others in the long-term even when shorter-term personal gains (through money saving) are ineffective. Luckily, energy conservation in reality has both social as well as personal benefits. It isn’t a purely altruistic goal. The best way to help others might just be in ways that are at least a little bit self-serving as well.

To see if they were right, the researchers set out for the real world: a large family housing community in Los Angeles with more than 1100 individual units. In terms of electrical usage, the residents were typical for multifamily renters in California and only slightly lower than the national average owing to California’s mild climate. The 118 participating households in their study consisted either of single, married, or domestically partnered graduate college students, with and without children. While they were on average younger and better educated than the US population, the researchers consider them representative of the “next generation of homeowners,” in particular because they “are used to working with mobile electronic devices and increasingly rely on electronic communications in their consumption habits.” In other words, they’re able to self-monitor their usage patterns using their smartphones and computers, which was central to the experimental protocol. Their findings were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers installed wireless monitors on appliances within each household so they could monitor usage and deliver it to the participants on a weekly basis – more often than the monthly electrical bill that they were used to receiving (the researchers themselves could break the data down hour by hour). They monitored their usage for six months to establish a baseline. Then, for one hundred days, half the participants received weekly information regarding the financial benefits from cutting down on their usage, while the other half received information regarding the health-related implications of electricity generation. For a control group, the researchers monitored the electrical usage of other residents in the complex whose energy usage was in the top 10% most efficient from among those with comparable usage.

They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that health-related messages were indeed more effective. “Health and environment messages, which communicate the public health externalities of electricity production such as childhood asthma and cancer,” they say, “outperform monetary savings information as a driver of behavioral change in the home.” Specifically, those who were told about air pollution and health impacts reduced their consumption by an average of 8.2% over the 100-day experimental phase of the study. The messaging was even more effective when just considering families with children in the home. They collectively reduced their usage by 19 percent!

For context, the researchers explain than an 8% energy reduction can be achieved by unplugging a laptop (that would otherwise remain plugged in) for 87 hours each week, unplugging a flatscreen TV for 36 hours each week, or turning off one standard 60 watt lightbulb for 72 hours each week.

Why wasn’t the cost-savings information effective? It could be because the average homeowner wouldn’t achieve a terribly large saving. The average savings potential for a two-bedroom apartment (assuming a family) is just $5.40 to $6.60. That’s about the cost of a fast food combo meal or two gallons of whole milk. In some ways, for many families, those savings are negligible.

The researchers warn that it isn’t clear from their study how persistent the changes they observed could be. Would homeowners wind up reverting to their baseline, or could their behavior changes be long lasting? Finding an answer to that question is critical: when it comes to electricity, energy conservation through behavior change can reduce emissions by 123 million metric tons of carbon each year, a whopping fifth of US household direct emissions. The challenge in convincing homeowners to reduce their energy is ultimately one of communication, and this research suggests one potentially fruitful avenue for researchers and activists to explore. – Jason G. Goldman | 16 January 2015

Source: Omar I. Asensio and Magali A. Delmas. (2015). Nonprice incentives and energy conservation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201401880. DOI:

Header image: