Lifestyle Change: The 3rd Rail of Clean Energy

Nobody likes being told what to do. Clean energy was probably set back a decade when Jimmy Carter told us all to wear a sweater. Now Barack Obama is telling us we don’t have to wear a jacket. Hopefully, that is better.  Without behavior changes, the transition to clean energy requires investments in new technologies. Our mission at HOMER Energy is to help people identify and design those cost-effective solutions.

But behaviors do change over time. At one time, obtaining a driver’s license was the most important rite of passage for a young American teenager and buying a car was their first financial goal. Today, I have a twenty-year-old son who shows no interest in getting a driver’s license, but he would move heaven and earth to maintain his internet access.

Energy forecasters underestimate the extent to which behaviors and lifestyles can change in almost painless ways.  It may require infrastructure investments that take time, perhaps measured in generations. Policies that impose lifestyle changes are political non-starters, but energy forecasters who ignore these same changes are predicting that our children’s world will not differ from our own.

Behavior change is also relevant to the topic of 100% renewable futures. This topic is coming up more and more frequently.  At HOMER Energy, we model a lot of transition systems that are hybrids of renewable and conventional power sources.  The HOMER software shows quite conclusively that renewable power technologies can reduce the cost of diesel-powered systems today if they are deployed in a hybrid configuration that is 30-80% renewable, depending on the size of the system.  Thirty percent can be achieved without any storage and 80% can be achieved cost-effectively in small systems with current energy storage technology.  There are a whole range of options in between depending on site-specific factors, but 100% solutions[1] either require a major breakthrough in storage technology or some lifestyle changes.

Systems that are 100% renewable during cloudy (or windless) periods will have excess energy during sunny periods.  Unless people adapt their energy consumption to the weather, storage would have to be many times less expensive than it currently is to be able to use this excess energy. For example, how much of an imposition would it be on people’s lifestyles if they only did laundry on sunny days when there was excess electricity?  I mentioned this in a meeting today with advocates of 100% renewable solutions, a group that would seem to be very open to such ideas.  It seemed like a non-starter to them.  It certainly would be a non-starter as a policy recommendation.  Although some people would never adapt in that way, I suspect there are many people who would be willing to if it saved a few dollars, especially now that laundry equipment has timers and other controls to make this change easier.

HOMER Energy focuses on clean, sustainable power that is cost-effective without any behavior changes because that is what is needed now. As our massive infrastructure of long-lived energy systems evolves, the first transitional systems need to be hybrids of renewable and existing generation technologies.   Jumping to 100% renewable power in a single step would be extremely costly, making renewable power look unattractive.  However, in the longer run, the world will change in ways that we cannot foresee. Things that seemed crazy a generation ago, like a teenager not wanting a driver’s license, can become commonplace.  Many lifestyle changes could be healthier, but they have to be freely chosen.  Rather than focus on 100% solutions that require lifestyle changes, clean energy advocates should be promoting cost-effective options and policies to correct misaligned incentives. Future scenarios can be more ambitious, but less specific.  To avoid being really costly, ambitious scenarios require either technical breakthroughs or lifestyle changes.  Some combination of those is quite likely, but unpredictable.  In the meantime, let’s work together to identify cost-effective applications that can be implemented without controversy.

[1] For the purposes of this discussion, net-zero solutions do not count as examples of 100% renewable solutions.  The concept of net-zero relies on exporting excess renewable power to a larger non-renewable system and then importing power back from that non-renewable system.  This is a useful way to avoid the cost of power storage as long as the larger system has relatively low amounts of renewable power.