By Elisa Wood
November 17, 2011
The US Department of Energy’s reputation is now enshrined as the agency that Republican presidential contender Rick Perry wants to dismantle – if only he could remember its name. But a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences offers a different direction for the federal agency, one that may not make it more memorable, but a bit more people-centered.
The academy tackles a problem that beguiles the energy industry. Now that we have the technology that lets householders take more control of their energy destiny, how do we inspire them to do so?
The question is central to energy efficiency efforts because smart technologies, such as home energy displays and cell-phone controlled thermostats, offer new ways to save energy. A lot of energy – and therefore money – is at stake. Homes account for about 30–40 percent of US energy consumption. So cutting household energy use by just 20 percent would reduce total national energy use 7.5 percent, according to the report.
We can blame the energy industry for our lack of interest in home energy management, or credit the industry, depending on how you look at it. Utilities have done their job too well. Energy flows invisibly into our homes. Or as Steven Koonin, DOE undersecretary for science, says in the report: “One of the great triumphs of modern society is that we’ve hidden the infrastructure. Nobody really understands where electricity, gas, or water come from.”
Now that we want people to be aware, how do we make energy infrastructure visible, at least psychologically?
The academy says it’s time for the energy industry to seek answers within the social sciences, a realm it’s rarely delved into. Drawing from a two-day workshop the academy held in May, the report highlights several places were human nature and energy realities collide.