GreenSpace: Study: Concerns over children's health motivates reduction in electricity use
In trying to encourage energy conservation, proponents often emphasize the money people will save on electricity bills. But a new study out of California suggests that potential savings aren't a good motivator. What prompts people to switch off the lights and turn down the heat are concerns about health and air pollution.
In trying to encourage energy conservation, proponents often emphasize the money people will save on electricity bills.
But a new study out of California suggests that potential savings aren't a good motivator. What prompts people to switch off the lights and turn down the heat are concerns about health and air pollution.
And not even concerns about their own immediate health, it turns out. Public health and the health of their children are powerful incentives.
In the study, which involved 118 grad student apartments at the University of California, Los Angeles, people who regularly got e-mail messages about how much money they could save made few to no changes in their energy consumption.
But people who got messages saying how much air pollution their energy use corresponded to - and reminding them that the pollution is linked to diseases such as childhood asthma and cancer - cut their energy use an average of 8 percent.
People with children in the home were even more motivated, cutting their energy use nearly 20 percent.
"We're finding that you have to bundle the public good with the private good," said Magali Delmas, an environmental economist at UCLA, and the study's lead author.
Most people, she said, don't really know where their electricity comes from, or the extent to which generating it pollutes their air and harms their health. "It's sort of like going to the grocery store, and getting a bill at the end of the month, but you don't know what costs what - the price of caviar versus eggs."
In a way, the results were a surprise. After all, the nonprofit advocacy group, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, has a behavior and human dimensions program that contends energy "must become concrete and visible to people in real-time, rather than abstract and after the fact." What's more concrete and current than money?
In pre-study interviews, the participants thought money would be the primary motivating factor.
Perhaps one reason it didn't turn out like that is that the potential monetary savings of this group, living in smaller apartments, was minor, Delmas said. On average, residents stood to save about $5 a month, the equivalent of "a burger [or] an expensive latte," she said. "It's not much in terms of the effort that's required."
However, "when you think about big problems like asthma and cancer, you're more likely to do something," she said. "The cause is more important."
Especially if you have children.
Indeed, one participant, Paulina Morales, told the researchers that "the message reminds you that you're hurting people and the planet. It made me more conscious of the energy I was using."
The authors of the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that decades of research have shown electricity generation to be an important source of air pollution with far-reaching health effects.
Emissions - especially those from coal-fired power plants, which in 2013 generated the bulk of the nation's electricity - lead to the formation of airborne fine particles, which can aggravate asthma and other respiratory and heart illnesses. They also lead to new cases of chronic bronchitis, and cause premature death of the elderly and those with heart or lung disease. Emissions also lead to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, which also reduces lung function and exacerbates respiratory diseases.
Mercury emissions can wind up in our food, leading to developmental delays in children. Other toxic metals emitted can cause cancer.
Aside from the human suffering, the price tag for all this is huge: $62 billion, according to a National Research Council report in 2010.
Susan Mazur-Stommen, an anthropologist who directed the American council's behavior program, said the study was more important than she originally thought.
"Eight percent is a lot," she said of the energy savings the group that received the environmental and health messaging achieved. One company working with utilities on their messaging is considered "really successful" with energy efficiency gains of about 2 percent.
There's a perception in the industry that environmental messaging doesn't work. It turns people off.
"But this research underscores the fact that environmental messaging does work, and it works really well, and it works particularly well with people who have children," Mazur-Stommen said.