It may be one of the few parts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “Clean Power Plan” — a regulation to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — that’s not controversial.

In its proposed rule published back in June, the EPA suggested that one key tool that states and utility companies can use to meet their required emissions reduction goals is what the agency calls “demand-side energy efficiency.” For instance, significant energy savings – and emission cuts – could be reaped by programs that incentivize people to buy more energy-efficient home appliances, that encourage buildings to use energy more efficiently, or that change individual behavior itself to reduce energy consumption.

More specifically, the EPA lists energy efficiency as one of four “building blocks” that can help states reach their emissions reductions goals, calling it “a proven, low-cost way to reduce emissions, which will save consumers and businesses money and mean less carbon pollution.” The agency suggests that a 1.5 percent reduction in a state’s emissions might be achieved through this route.

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But according to a group of behavioral researchers writing in the latest issue of Nature Climate Change and led by the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Amanda Carrico, EPA is setting a “very modest” target here. As they note, some estimates for how much energy could be saved by energy efficiency initiatives — including programs that try to directly change people’s behavior — run as high as 23 percent of total U.S. electricity demand. In terms of emissions, they continue, ramping up household focused conservation programs could conceivably lead to a seven percent cut overall.

Indeed, a single behavioral energy intervention that many utilities are already pursuing — sending out home energy reports along with monthly utility bills, which compare people’s usage levels with those of their neighbors — leads to a 2 percent reduction in energy use, on average. The reports are created by Opower, a software firm that helps utility companies better connect with their customers, and they work by letting people see how much they’re using compared with others living near them (we humans are, after all, social animals) and giving encouragement to those who are using less.

Here’s an example:

The EPA says that even programs that “seek to alter consumer and building occupant behavior” can be considered by states — the agency “does not want to discourage their implementation,” though it notes that measuring their effectiveness could present challenges.

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At a time when bitter political arguments are beginning over the Clean Power Plan — which is often denounced as the chief vehicle for the “war on coal” — the energy efficiency and behavioral route is notably nonpartisan. After all, nobody, either on the left or the right, is against the prudent conservation of energy, through behavioral change, more efficient appliance purchases, or anything else. And liberals and conservatives alike will surely celebrate the lower utility bills that go hand in hand with greater home energy efficiency.

Indeed, as we’ve reported here at Energy & Environment, the military is already implementing behavioral techniques to help Marines and the Navy save vital fuel – whose conservation translates directly into increased tactical capacity and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest changes in the structure of our energy system in a long time — the rollout of 50 million smart meters, with more on the way — has thus far failed to achieve its full energy-savings potential due to a failure to take human and behavioral factors into account, and to be user-friendly. Simply providing people with smart meter data in real time in a form that helps them understand how much power they’re using and how much it’s costing them could inspire many behavioral changes that could add up to big energy savings — and big emissions cuts.

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It’s in this context that Carrico and her colleagues call on EPA to make sure that they carefully design the efficiency-focused, electricity demand-reduction side of the Clean Power Plan. The EPA’s approach, they write, is a “rare move” and represents a major new precedent — or, it could. Behavioral programs are “often viewed as minor adjuncts to more traditional regulatory actions, not as a core part of the response to energy and climate challenges,” they note. The evidence above suggests there are many reasons that should change.

One key problem, though, will be whether an agency like EPA has the right DNA to oversee the utility industry’s deployment of social science-heavy behavioral and efficiency programs. It’s not exactly part of the traditional environmental regulatory wheelhouse. “Achieving these objectives,” note Carrico and her colleagues, “will challenge the thinking of regulators who have more experience with mandating the best available technologies than with programs that target decision-making and voluntary behavior.” Measuring how much energy behavioral programs are actually saving – and how many emissions they’ll therefore be averting – is also a challenge.

No one is saying that merely changing people’s behavior, or the objects they use in their homes, will let us stop worrying about coal plants and the emissions they pour into the atmosphere. Nor are they saying that energy efficiency and behavioral change should be the number one strategy for addressing climate change.

Nonetheless, efficiency and behavior could be a much bigger climate wedge than it currently is. And increasing it benefits everybody, and above all the consumer — who ends up paying less on each electricity bill.

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