U.S. Marines arrive to support the American effort to contain the Ebola epidemic on Oct. 9, 2014, near Monrovia, Liberia. (John Moore/Getty Images)

This is the first in a three-part series titled “Your Brain on Energy” for our new Energy and Environment coverage. For Part II, click here. For Part III, click here.

In the arid lands of the Mojave Desert, Marine regimental commander Jim Caley traveled alongside a 24-mile stretch of road and saw trucks, tanks and armored tracked vehicles all idling in the heat — and wasting enormous amounts of expensive fuel.

Caley had already led forces in Iraq, and at the time was charged with seven battalions comprising 7,000 Marines. But this was a new and different challenge. Overseeing a major spring 2013 training exercise at the Marine Corps’ Twentynine Palms base in southern California, he was struck by how little he knew about how America’s war-fighting machine used energy.

“No targets prosecuted, no miles to the gallon, no combat benefit being delivered,” Caley, a Marine colonel, says of the scene. “At the time, I had no system to understand what was going on, and what was occurring, and how much further I could go on the same fuel.”

The Department of Defense is the single biggest user of energy in the U.S. — its energy bill in 2013 was $18.9 billion — and Caley now plays a central role in trying to ensure that just one of its branches, the Marine Corps, uses that power in the optimal way. The implications for the military are vast. For instance, the Marines alone have estimated that they could save $26 million per year through a 10 percent energy reduction at their installations and bases, to say nothing of Marine field operations, which used an estimated 1.5 million barrels of fuel in 2014.

But most striking is how these changes are coming about. As head of the Marines Corps’ five-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office, Caley is tapping into one of the hottest trends in academic energy research: looking to use psychology and the behavioral sciences to find ways of saving energy by changing people — their habits, routines, practices and preconceptions.

“The opportunities that we see on the behavioral side of the house are phenomenal,” Caley explained during a recent interview in his Pentagon office. “And they’re frankly less expensive than us trying to buy new equipment.”

Through behavioral changes alone — tweaking the ways that Marines drive their vehicles, power their outposts, handle their equipment — Caley thinks he can increase their overall battlefield range by as much as five days, a change that would provide immense tactical benefit by cutting down on refueling requirements (and the logistical hurdles and vulnerabilities associated with them). If he succeeds, the Marines would stand at the forefront of an energy revolution that may someday rival wind or solar in importance: one focused not on changing our technologies or devices, but on changing us. And its applications would touch every corner of our society, from how we behave in our homes to how we drive our cars.

The behavioral science wave

Any change to how the military uses energy has momentous implications simply because it uses so much of it — roughly the same amount of power annually as the state of West Virginia. But the behavioral revolution in energy is also highly significant in the civilian sector, where truly Pentagon-sized energy gains could be reaped just by tweaking little behaviors. For instance, here are some published estimates of possible energy savings from behavioral changes. These shouldn’t be taken as exact, but rather as ballpark figures:

  • A roughly 1 percent overall U.S. household energy savings could be gained if people switched their washing machines from “hot wash, warm rinse” to “warm wash, cold rinse.”
  • 2.8 percent gain could come from setting the thermostat at 68 degrees during the day and 65 degrees overnight.
  • Another 2 percent could be gained by driving cars at 60 miles per hour, rather than 70, on the highway.

Indeed, one 2009 study suggested that American households — which account for around 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions — could  achieve a 20 percent emissions reduction by changing which household appliances and objects they use, and how they use them. That’s greater than the total emissions of the country of France.

The point is underscored by just how much Americans in similar circumstances can diverge in their energy use patterns. “You can have two families, demographically similar, living side by side, in similar apartments, and there will be something like two to four times difference between one family and the other in their consumption,” says Susan Mazur-Stommen, an anthropologist and independent consultant on energy efficiency. “And that will be attributable to behavioral differences.”

If there’s a core theme of the behavioral revolution in energy, it’s this: For a long time, economists have assumed that humans are “rational actors” who seek all the necessary information before making an optimal decision — energy-related or otherwise — and who respond predictably to changes in price. Thus, when they realize that, say, an Energy Star certified refrigerator will save them a lot of money over time, they process that information accordingly and buy the refrigerator.

Yet there’s now a growing consensus that this is a woefully incomplete picture.

The new research suggests that in making energy choices, people take into account much more than simple economic costs. Instead, they follow their peers; cling to habits; believe and act upon energy related “myths” (like the idea that it will take more energy to heat your house up again in the morning if you lower the thermostat all night); and respond to subtle, even subliminal cues.

In short, they are humans, warts and all, with a large array of flaws and foibles. “The view of most human cognition and human motivation that comes out of traditional economics is limited,” says Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber, who is consulting with the Navy on energy use. “It’s not to say that people can’t make rational decisions — but they’re not the only processes, and not the only motivations.”

A first target for the Marines: idle vehicles

Since moving to the Expeditionary Energy Office 18 months ago, Jim Caley has overseen much research on Marine vehicle operators’ behavior patterns and the resulting energy costs. To give one example, consider the “MTVR” or Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, a large truck capable of carrying 15 tons that is used to transport Marines, supplies and weapons.

U.S. Marines Sgt. Kenneth T. Gilkey directs a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement truck. (U.S. Marines)

As it turns out, Caley says, Marines have tended to idle these trucks for long, unnecessary periods of time. Why? Much as with civilian light duty cars, one reason is that an older vehicle model, a truck called the M-813, actually required it. “The truck that we had before that one, if you didn’t start it about 40 minutes before you wanted leave, you didn’t know if all the trucks would start,” Caley remembers. “And I know, because I was the guy who was in the motor pool, with my truck drivers, running around jumping trucks to make sure they would start.”

However, newer truck models have made the practice unnecessary, but people haven’t necessarily changed so quickly. “All the supervisors remember that old equipment,” Caley says.

So how do you change the behavior? Caley’s office conducted an experiment in which they added consumption gauges to the MTVRs for one platoon so those vehicle operators could see information about their fuel efficiency, and they compared them to a platoon without the gauges.

“The platoon with the gauges was 40 percent more efficient,” Caley says.

That’s not to say that all idling of military vehicles should cease. There are many moments when you want your engine on so you can respond to a situation quickly and potentially save lives. The trick is idling at the right times and not idling at the wrong ones. “We actually think that half of idling is bad,” says Caley.

Caley also emphasizes that changes in idling behavior are just one of many fixes he’s examining. He suspects every one of the more than 300 Marine Corps specialties could use some changes. Others would include very different uses of all important power generators, upon which Marines depend in the field and at their forward bases — but which, Caley says, are often being used to create a lot of power than Marines ever use. “By a long shot,” he says.

Behavioral change in the Navy

And that’s just the Marines. The Navy is trying to do in the air and sea what Caley’s trying to do on land.

In 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus mandated that by the year 2020, his department (which includes the Marine Corps) would get half of its total energy from alternative sources. Now, his assistant secretary for Energy, Installations, and Environment, Dennis McGinn — who recently returned to the Navy after heading the American Council on Renewable Energy — has partnered with two behavioral science experts, Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Ruth Greenspan Bell, to find behavioral changes that can lead to big energy savings.

The goal, says McGinn, is “taking behavior research that has been shown to be effective in understanding organizational and individual behavior, and applying it to a new problem set: How can the Department of the Navy change its culture and approach to energy?”

The savings could be vast:  the Department of the Navy spends some $5 billion annually on fuel. That’s 1.25 billion gallons,* and transporting it around presents any number of challenges, from holding up operations to presenting vulnerabilities. So any reduction is desirable, from a tactical standpoint.

So what are the behavioral possibilities? According to Rear Adm. Kevin Slates, who heads the Navy’s Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, many Navy ships can save energy by changing older patterns for how they are operated. Often these ships, he explains, have two large propellers and two to four engines — and they don’t all have to be engaged in many circumstances.

“At lower speeds … I can shut down two or three of those engines, disengage one of the propellers so it’s not dragging and it’s just spinning, [and] then you don’t have to drag through the water. It’s going obviously through the water more efficiently,” says Slates.

Slates says he is also looking at changes to how much Navy planes idle before takeoff, and the process by which planes refuel in midair. One new practice here is called “smart tanking,” which can provide a 65 percent reduction in fuel use by cutting how long tankers remain in the air. With less air time, the tankers don’t have to bring up as much fuel with them, which in turn means they experience less aerial drag.

“When the Department of the Navy started this energy focus five years ago, I think some people had the perception that it’s really all about technology,” says Slates. “But I don’t personally think that’s the biggest potential piece. I think the biggest potential piece is behavior.”

Default settings and “status quo bias”

Several recurrent themes from behavioral research on energy use are key to understanding what’s going on in the military. One is the power of time-honored myths — which may once have made sense, but do not any longer — to shape behavior. And another is what is called our “status quo bias,” sometimes also referred to as the power of “defaults,” which means that it takes much more effort to adopt a new option or behavior, or to buy and install a more energy-efficient appliance, than to keep things as they were.

The implications of this insight extend far beyond idling Marine vehicles. For instance, it means that any time you have a new energy-saving program in which you want people to participate, every additional step that you require them to go through — getting a home energy audit, qualifying for financing, and so on — cuts down on participation levels.

“One of the things that’s been the case in the United States is that incentives for things like home insulation have tended to require a lot of effort on the part of the consumer,” says Paul Stern of the National Academy of Sciences, a prominent researcher on energy and behavior. “You have to document what you spend it on; if it’s a tax credit, you have to wait a year [and] you have to keep the paperwork.”

The status quo bias has another major implication. It means that there is a vast difference between an program that is “opt in” — meaning that people have to actively choose to be part of it — versus one that is “opt out,” meaning that people will be automatically subscribed unless they elect otherwise.

“Every few months you get a letter from your utility saying, ‘Do you want to switch to green electricity?’ ” says Columbia University’s Weber, “and most people just throw these in the garbage.” But what if the letter instead informed you that you were being opted in to cleaner energy, unless you actually bothered to fill out the card saying “no thanks” and mail it back in?

In her work with the Navy, Weber thinks she may have already identified a default setting that needs to change. She’s investigating the realm of equipment procurement and the systems that the department uses to decide what kinds of ships, planes, vehicles and other technologies to purchase.

You might think the best way to have the Navy or Marines purchase more energy-efficient equipment would be to simply instruct those responsible to do so. But Weber warns that in light of the status quo bias, it might be far better to simply change the software they use.

“Think of a software system … that makes an automatic recommendation, and the default would be the most energy-efficient one — but if that doesn’t meet your other requirements, you can go down the list,” says Weber. “But it makes your job simpler, by automatically sorting on that one dimension, unless you decide otherwise.”

The biggest wedge?

One popular paradigm for thinking about how to deal with the problem of global warming is to divide the problem into “wedges.” Thus, one wedge would be to increase solar power. Another would be to make buildings more energy efficient. And so on.

Conceived of in this way,  according to Columbia’s Weber, changing human behavior may be most powerful wedge of all for one simple reason: It influences all of the others.

“Behavioral approaches are not just one wedge,” says Weber. “It is an additive contribution, because there are certain things that you only get with behavioral approaches — but behavioral science also tells you how to implement all of these other solutions in a different way.”

For the Marines, if there’s one reason to think the new behavioral approach may succeed, it’s because it has the right message — perhaps the most important psychological factor of them all. Leaders like Caley, Slates and McGinn are explicitly framing the need for behavioral change in energy use in a language that appeals to their intended audience — war-fighters. For them, it isn’t fundamentally about saving money, and it’s “definitely not about green,” says Caley. Rather, it’s about increasing mission effectiveness — and saving lives.

“My battalion command was in Iraq and in the end, it cost me lives to deliver supplies to the units that I support,” says Caley. “And if I have a chance to prevent one of those, and I can do it by getting Marines to use their fuel more effectively, well then it seems like … an easy thing to reach out and say, ‘We need to fix this now.’ ”

* Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the Navy uses 1.25 billion barrels of fuel each year. It actually uses 1.25 billion gallons.

This article is the first in a three-part series titled “Your Brain on Energy” for our new Energy and Environment coverage. For Part II, click here. For Part III, click here.

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