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Consumers Can Sabotage Energy-saving Efforts

By Traci Watson
USA Today
March 24, 2009


As President Obama and Congress pump billions into energy
conservation, experts warn that the promised energy savings could be
undermined by consumer behavior.

There is even a name for it: the Snackwell Effect.

Just as dieters might binge on Snackwell's low-calorie cookies, people who
buy energy-efficient items for their homes sabotage their efforts to save
power often by using the appliances more heavily, studies have shown.
A marketing survey to be released today showed that one-third of
respondents who made energy-efficiency efforts at home saw no decrease in
their energy bills, and a 2008 study by University of Michigan economist
Lucas Davis found that people given energy-efficient washing machines
washed more clothes.

"It could be that by doing something virtuous, it gives you license to do
something indulgent somewhere else," says Portland State University's
Loren Lutzenhiser, who studies energy consumption.

People who install efficient lights lose 5%-12% of the expected energy
savings by leaving them on longer, said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez of the
non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. People who
buy an efficient furnace lose 10%-30% of their savings, probably from
raising the thermostat, she said.

"It doesn't mean energy efficiency is a waste of time," says Sussex
University's Steve Sorrell, who wrote a 2007 report for the federally
funded UK Energy Research Centre on the phenomenon, which economists call
the takeback effect. It does mean that "standards on efficiency will not
be sufficient by themselves."

The takeback effect could cut the energy savings from measures being
championed in Washington. The $787 billion stimulus package signed by
Obama last month includes $5 billion for weatherization programs and $300
million in rebates for energy-efficient products

In a new survey of 500 Americans by the Shelton Group, one-third of
respondents reported that they hadn't seen the expected cuts in their
energy bill after investing in energy-efficiency measures such as
weatherstripping. Alan King of Morgantown, W.Va., for example, says he and
his wife purchased energy-efficient appliances but their electric bill has
changed little.

King confesses that sometimes his wife will wash just one piece of
clothing in their high-efficiency washer, which she would not have done
before.

One solution: Devices that tell people how much electricity they use
hour-by-hour, so they know the power consumed by a particular appliance.
"People don't really know what they're using," says Lynda Ziegler of
Southern California Edison. "At least on a cookie label there's the number
of calories."

 

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