Exploring Energy Efficiency

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CATEGORY: Civic Engagement, Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Economics, Environmental Studies, French and Francophone Studies, Physics & Astronomy

Rosie Mate ’12 focused on physics, French, environmental studies, and economics at Macalester. It makes sense that she approaches studying energy efficiency from different perspectives, too.

Two in-depth projects

Mate (Champaign, Ill.) conducted research for both of her majors, environmental studies and economics. For her economics honors thesis, she explored whether households that use their appliances more frequently are more likely to purchase Energy Star appliances, since those households have more to gain from reduced operating costs. She found, though, that operating cost doesn’t actually drive those decisions—showing that efficiency isn’t the only factor behind those appliance purchases.

Through her ongoing off-campus work with the Metro region of the Twin Cities Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), which is housed at Eureka Recycling, Mate had also learned firsthand that consumers can implement a host of other energy-saving measures besides major appliance purchases, so for an environmental studies independent study, she investigated how people understand those incremental measures and whether they exist in a clear pyramid model.

The test

Mate sorted a list of 38 energy reduction actions into a pyramid to test whether people who complete an action higher on the pyramid have also implemented actions they perceive as less intensive or costly. An existing national survey of 12,000 respondents showed that the actions most commonly taken are the least costly—for example, turning off a computer when it’s not in use. But it doesn’t always work that way. Julia Eagles ’06, a CERTs organizer who worked closely with Mate, says that she often sees homeowners wanting to move directly to the top of the pyramid by installing renewable energy like solar panels, but sustainability-focused organizations raise awareness about implementing the lower levels of the pyramid—the “low-hanging fruit” of no-cost or low cost measures—first.

The psychology

Mate also conducted a psychological study using subjects from the CERTs mailing list. She asked people via an online survey to compare pairs of actions to see what actions are perceived as more difficult to implement and what actions might be grouped together—for example, laundry habits such as washing clothes in cold water and hanging clothes to dry instead of using a dryer. One surprising result: programming a thermostat, an action low on the traditional pyramid and frequently touted as an easy way to reduce energy output, was actually perceived to be quite difficult by many of her respondents.

The goal

The study is ongoing, but Mate presented her preliminary findings at a recent EnviroThursday lecture hosted by the Environmental Studies Department. “If nonprofits tout an action as being one of the first steps that people actually see as more difficult, it’s counterproductive,” she says. “I hope to find a better understanding of where people are coming from regarding energy efficiency, so efforts from nonprofits can be better tailored to where the information gap is.”

“[The faculty] kept me focused on the why. ‘Why does this matter?’ They helped me frame these questions.”

The challenges

She knew that her subject pool inevitably would have more knowledge than a randomly selected one, but those respondents could also give a better-informed opinion because of their existing level of awareness. Mate did get a reality check, though, when she ran the study on her friends at Macalester first for practice. “They’d say, ‘What’s weather stripping? That’s a weird word,’” she said. “‘How difficult is installing insulation?’ If you’ve always lived in an apartment, there’s no reason you’d know that.”

Her faculty advisors helped keep her grounded in her research, too. “They kept me focused on the why,” says Mate, who will head to Denver after graduation to work as an economic analyst for Analysis Group. “‘Why does this matter?’ They helped me frame these questions. It’s the integration of lots of fields—and that’s part of why I liked it so much.”

PUBLISHED: 05/08/2012