Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Summer Research: The Executive Summary

This post provides a more in-depth overview of my summer research project, “A Systems Comparison of Four Community-Based Energy Conservation Programs.” Read it if you are really interested in my research; otherwise, you might find it rather boring.

Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, there have been many community-based efforts to encourage American citizens to conserve energy.  Many energy conservation advocates have focused on the energy used in American homes, which contributes roughly 21% of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions (EPA, 2010) and amounts to roughly 22% of the energy used for services (LBL, 2011).  Because most American homes have low efficiency and consume large amounts of energy, residential conservation is often toted as the “low hanging fruit” of the energy sector.  However, although conservation is theoretically a good option to reduced energy demand, conservation-focused campaigns have yet to substantially reduce the consumption in the residential sector (Wang, 2011).

Social scientists have conducted extensive analysis on efforts to promote conservation and efficiency in the residential sector, examining the topic through many different disciplinary lenses including public policy, technological development, sociology, psychology, economics, and social work.  This research reveals a broad array social, economic, technological, and behavioral factors that have prevented the effective implementation of residential energy conservation measures.  Much of this research is already being used to develop better energy conservation programs for residential communities (Fuller et al., 2010, p. 7).  

However, several aspects of the community-based energy conservation campaigns remain controversial in the social science literature, and few programs have achieved substantial energy savings or high participation rates from community members.  In addition, most previous research narrowly analyzed only a few factors of community-based energy conservation campaigns and did not consider the overall systemic interactions of all variables or important larger feedback processes.

Systems modeling can help to illuminate these missing systemic interactions and feedback processes, and can likely provide much deeper explanations as to why energy conservation programs have not rapidly proliferated.  In the tradition of system dynamics, these models do not explain problems in terms of bi-variable linear causality, but rather attribute observed behavior to feedback processes of the entire system.  Through a method called “group model building,” the lead modeler facilitates a process through which various stakeholders within the system collaborate to create a qualitative systems representation of the problem at hand.  This inclusive process leads to shared understanding and a growing awareness of the hidden feedbacks that lead to the observed behavior.  These qualitative models can later be quantified to create dynamic computer simulation models.

This summer, I will conduct a comparative case study design of four community-based energy conservation programs.  My project will focus on Weatherize DC project in Washington, DC, Cooperative Energy Futures in St. Paul, MN, Energize Corvalis in Corvalis, OR, and the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge in Baltimore, MD.   I will spend approximately two weeks with each organization, observing how each program functions, the effectiveness of each the program, and how community stakeholders and organization staff view the project.  I will also engage each program in a series of group model building sessions to elucidate the mental models of organizational staff.  Through these sessions and my observations, each energy conservation program will create develop its own qualitative systems model.  If data is available, these models will later be quantified.

I hypothesize that my research will show that there is a trade-off between program participation rates and per-capita energy savings.  Community-based programs that focus on small concessions, pledge-based approaches should achieve the highest participation rates, but they should also have the lowest relative energy savings of all of the approaches.  In contrast, programs that focus on single-action large improvements in efficiency (ie, entire house weatherization retrofits) should yield the lowest participation rates but the highest per-capita energy savings.

Below is the 2 x 2 comparative case study design for my summer research project. Please note that the programs do not rigidly fall within the categories; each program conducts a certain amount of work that targets behavior change and physical improvements in efficiency.  However, I believe that my categorizations capture the main focus of each particular program.

Small concessions programs
Single-action programs
Primarily pledge-based behavior changes (curtailment)
Energize Corvalis’ “Communities Take Charge!” Initiative
Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge
Primarily physical efficiency improvements
Cooperative Energy Futures / Summer of Solutions Twin Cities

Through the different central program focuses in each my four case studies, I hope to directly examine the relationship between program participation and energy savings.  I also hope that the models developed with each program will yield new systemic insights towards how to increase community engagement and energy savings in any program.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (2011). [Graphic illustration of estimated U.S. energy usage by sector].  Estimated U.S. Energy Use in 2009: ~94.6 Quads. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2010). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2008. Washington, DC. U.S. EPA # 430-R-10-006.  Retrieved from

Wang, Ucilia. (2011, April 4). Building Energy Efficiency Is a Hard Market to Crack.  Reuters. Retrieved from

1 comment:

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