Assessing the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Global energy consumption is on a path to grow 30-50 percent over the next 25 years, bringing with it, in many countries, increased local air pollution, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and oil consumption, as well as higher energy prices.  Energy-efficient technologies offer considerable promise for reducing the costs and environmental damages associated with energy use, but these technologies appear not to be used by consumers and businesses to the degree that would apparently be justified, even on the basis of their own (private) financial net benefits.

For some thirty years, there have been discussions and debates about this phenomenon among researchers and others in academia, government, non-profits, and private industry, typically couched in terms of potential explanations of the so-called “energy efficiency gap” or “energy paradox.”

Thinking About the Energy-Efficiency Gap

I wrote about this some two years ago at this blog ().  I  noted then that Professor Richard Newell of Duke University and I had just launched an initiative – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — to synthesize past work on potential explanations of the energy paradox and identify key gaps in knowledge. We subsequently conducted a comprehensive review and assessment of social-science research on the adoption of energy-efficient technologies.

We worked with leading social scientists — including scholars from economics, psychology, and other disciplines, at a workshop held at Harvard — to examine the various possible explanations of the energy paradox and thereby to help identify the frontiers of knowledge on the diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.  As materials became available, we posted them at the project’s Harvard website and the project’s Duke website.

Releasing a New Monograph

I’m pleased to inform readers of this blog that we have now released a major monograph, Assessing the Energy Efficiency Gap, co-authored with Todd Gerarden, a Harvard Ph.D. student in Public Policy and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP).  The monograph draws in part from the research workshop held at Harvard (in October 2013), in which most of the U.S.-based scholars (primarily, but not exclusively, economists) then conducting research on the energy-efficiency gap participated. HEEP co-sponsored a second such research workshop with the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) in Mannheim, Germany in March 2014, where European economists explored the same topic. Closely-related research was presented by panelists at the annual conference of the Allied Social Science Association in January 2015.

In the new monograph, Gerarden, Newell, and I examine both the “energy paradox,” the apparent reality that some energy-efficiency technologies that would pay off for adopters are nevertheless not adopted, and the broader phenomenon we characterize as the “energy-efficiency gap,” the apparent reality that some energy-efficiency technologies that would be socially efficient are not adopted. The contrast is between private and social optimality, which ultimately has important implications for the role of various policies, as well as their expected net benefits.

Four Key Questions

We begin by decomposing cost-minimizing energy-efficiency decisions into their fundamental elements, which allows us to identify four major questions, the answers to which are germane to sorting out the causes (and reality or lack thereof) of the paradox and gap.

First, we ask whether the energy efficiency and associated pricing of products on the market are economically efficient. To answer this question, we examine the variety of energy-efficient products on the market, their energy-efficiency levels, and their pricing. Although the theory is clear, empirical evidence is—in general—quite limited. More data that could facilitate potential future empirical research are becoming available, although firm-level data are much less plentiful than data on consumers. We do not see this area as meriting high priority for future research, however, with the exception of research that evaluates the effectiveness and efficiency of existing energy-efficiency information policies and examines options for improving these policies.

Second, we ask whether energy operating costs are inefficiently priced and/or understood. Even if consumers make privately optimal decisions, energy-saving technology may diffuse more slowly than the socially optimal rate, because of negative externalities. So, even if the energy paradox is not present, the energy-efficiency gap may be. As in the first realm, the theoretical arguments are strong. Empirical evidence is considerable, and in many cases data are likely to be available for additional research. Existing policies appear not to be sufficient from an economic perspective, suggesting that further research is warranted. Indeed, we ascribe high priority to the pursuit of research in this realm.

Third, we ask whether product choices are cost-minimizing in present-value terms, or whether various market failures and/or behavioral phenomena inhibit such cost-minimization. We find that the empirical evidence ranges from strong (split incentives/agency issues and inattention/salience phenomena) to moderate (heuristic decision-making/bounded rationality, systematic risk, and option value) to weak (learning-by-using, loss aversion, myopia, and capital market failures). Importantly, here, as elsewhere in our review, the bulk of previous work has focused on the residential sector and much less attention has been given to the commercial and industrial sectors. Some areas merit priority for future research, such as empirical analysis of split incentives/agency issues in areas where efficiency standards are not present, and much more work can be done in the behavioral realm.

Fourth, we ask whether other unobserved costs may inhibit energy-efficient decisions. We find that the empirical evidence is generally sound, and that data needed for more research are available. We assign a relatively high priority to future research, particularly to aid understanding of consumer demand for product attributes that are correlated with energy efficiency, thereby informing policy and product development decisions.

Three Categories of Potential Explanations of the Gap

Finally, we ask what these findings have to say about the three categories of explanations (reviewed in detail in my 2013 essay at this blog) for the apparent underinvestment in energy-efficient technologies relative to the predictions of some engineering and economic models: (1) market failures, (2) behavioral effects, and (3) modeling flaws.  In brief, potential market-failure explanations include information problems, energy market failures, capital market failures, and innovation market failures. Potential behavioral explanations include inattentiveness and salience, myopia and short sightedness, bounded rationality and heuristic decision-making, prospect theory and reference-point phenomena, and systematically biased beliefs. Finally, potential modeling flaws include unobserved or understated costs of adoption; ignored product attributes; heterogeneity in benefits and costs of adoption across potential adopters; use of incorrect discount rates; and uncertainty, irreversibility, and option value.

It turns out that all three categories of explanations are theoretically sound and that limited empirical evidence exists for every category as well, although the empirical research is by no means consistently strong across all of the specific explanations.  The validity of each of these explanations—and the degree to which each contributes to the energy-efficiency gap—are relevant for crafting sensible policies, so Gerarden, Newell, and I hope that our new monograph can help inform both future research and policy.  Given the many energy-efficiency policies and programs that are already in place, high priority should be given to research that evaluates the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and overall economic efficiency of existing energy-efficiency policies, as well as options for their improvement.


Thinking About the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Adoption of energy-efficient technologies could reap both private and social rewards, in the form of economic, environmental, and other social benefits from reduced energy consumption. Social benefits include improvements in air quality, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, and increased energy security. In response, governments around the world have adopted policies to increase energy efficiency.  Still, there is a broadly held view that various barriers to the adoption of energy-efficient technologies have prevented the realization of a substantial portion of these benefits.

For some thirty years, there have been discussions and debates among researchers and others in academia, government, non-profits, and private industry regarding the so-called “energy efficiency gap” (or “energy paradox”) — the apparent reality that many energy-efficiency technologies are not adopted even when it makes sense for consumers and businesses to do so, based on their private costs and benefits. That is, decision makers appear to “under-invest” in energy-efficient technologies, relative to the predictions of some engineering and economic models.

What causes this gap?  The answer to that question could presumably help inform the development of better public policy in this realm.

Possible Explanations for the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Potential explanations for the energy efficiency gap tend to fall into three broad categories: (1) market failures, such as lack of information or misplaced incentives; (2) behavioral effects, such as inattentiveness to future energy savings when purchasing energy-consuming products; and (3) modeling flaws, such as assumptions that understate the costs or overstate the benefits of energy efficiency.  In this essay, I simply want to outline the types of hypothetical explanations of the gap that have been posited within these three broad categories.

Market-Failure Explanations

First, various Innovation Market Failures have been posited, including:  research and development (R&D) and learning-by-doing spillovers; inefficient product quality and differentiation due to market power; and inefficient introduction of new products due to consumer taste spillovers (for example, consumers becoming comfortable with a new technology).

Second, another set of potential market-failure explanations for the gap may be characterized as Information Problems.  These include:  lack of information on the part of consumers (learning-by-using or so-called experience goods; energy prices; energy consumption of products; and available substitutes); asymmetric information (the “lemons problem”); and split incentives and principal-agent issues (such as the frequently-discussed renter/owner dichotomy).

Third, there are Capital Market Failures and Liquidity Constraints, which may be a particularly significant issue in developing-country contexts.

Fourth, there are Energy Market Failures, including various externalities (environmental, energy security, congestion, and accident risk), as well as average-cost pricing of electricity.

Behavioral Explanations

The rise of behavioral economics has brought to the fore another well-defined set of potential explanations of the energy efficiency gap.  A variety of alternative taxonomies could be employed to separate these explanations, but one such taxonomy would categorize the explanations as:

Model and Measurement Explanations

The third category of possible explanations of the energy efficiency gap consists essentially of a set of reasons why observed levels of diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies may actually be privately optimal.

First, there is the possibility of unobserved or understated adoption costs, including unaccounted for product characteristics.

Second, there may be overstated benefits of adoption, due to inferior project execution relative to assumptions, and/or poor policy design.

Third, an incorrect discount rate may be employed in an analysis, when the correct consumer and firm discount rates should vary with:

  • opportunity cost of and access to capital
  • income
  • buying versus retrofitting equipment
  • systematic risk
  • option value (see below)

Fourth, there is frequently heterogeneity across end users in the benefits and costs of employing energy-efficiency technologies, so that what is privately optimal on average will not be privately optimal for all.  This can refer either to static (cross-sectional) heterogeneity or to dynamic (intertemporal) heterogeneity, that is, technology improvements over time, which raises two possibilities:  the reality of some potential adopters being short of the frontier, and the presence of option value to waiting.

Fifth and finally, there is the possibility of uncertainty (real, not informational, as above), irreversibility, and option value.  This could be due to uncertainty regarding future energy prices, or can be linked with option value that arises for delaying investments that have only minimal if any salvage value.

Public Policy and Next Steps

Determining the validity of each of these possible explanations — and the degree to which each contributes to the energy efficiency gap — are crucial steps in crafting the most appropriate public policy responses.

To inform future research and policy, Professor Richard Newell of Duke University and I have launched an initiative – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — to synthesize past work on these potential explanations of the energy paradox and identify key gaps in knowledge.  We are conducting a comprehensive review and assessment of published and ongoing social-science research on the adoption of energy-efficient technologies, including scholarly literature, industry case studies, reports from national and sub-national governments, and, to the extent possible, consulting reports evaluating specific programs.

We are working with leading social scientists — including scholars from economics, psychology, and other disciplines — to examine the various possible explanations of the energy paradox and thereby to help identify the frontiers of knowledge on the diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.  We hope the products of this initiative will help decision makers in industry and government better understand the energy efficiency gap, and will thereby contribute to decisions that maximize the potential economic, environmental, and other social benefits associated with optimal adoption of energy-efficient technologies.  As materials become available, we will post them at the project’s Harvard website and the project’s Duke website, and I will alert readers of this blog.  In the meantime, please stay tuned.


Too Good to be True?

Global climate change is a serious environmental threat, and sound public policies are needed to address it effectively and sensibly.

There is now significant interest and activity within both the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Congress to develop a meaningful national climate policy in this country.  (If you’re interested, please see some of my previous posts:  “Opportunity for a Defining Moment” (February 6, 2009); “The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade:  A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey” (May 27, 2009); “Worried About International Competitiveness?  Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal” (June 18, 2009); “National Climate Change Policy:  A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead” (June 29, 2009).  For a more detailed account, see my Hamilton Project paper, A U.S. Cap-and-Trade System to Address Global Climate Change.)

And as we move toward the international negotiations to take place in December of this year in Copenhagen, it is important to keep in mind the global commons nature of the problem, and hence the necessity of designing and implementing an international policy architecture that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.

Back in the U.S., with domestic action delayed in the Senate, several states and regions in the United States have moved ahead with their own policies and plans.  Key among these is California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, intended to return the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to their 1990 level.  In 2006, three studies were released indicating that California can meet its 2020 target at no net economic cost.  That is not a typographical error.  The studies found not simply that the costs will be low, but that the costs will be zero, or even negative!  That is, the studies found that California’s ambitious target can be achieved through measures whose direct costs would be outweighed by offsetting savings they create, making them economically beneficial even without considering the emission reductions they may achieve.  Not just a free lunch, but a lunch we are paid to eat!

Given the substantial emission reductions that will be required to meet California’s 2020 target, these findings are ­- to put it mildly – surprising, and they differ dramatically from the vast majority of economic analyses of the cost of reducing GHG emissions.  As a result, I was asked by the Electric Power Research Institute – along with my colleagues, Judson Jaffe and Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group – to evaluate the three California studies.

In a report titled, “Too Good To Be True?  An Examination of Three Economic Assessments of California Climate Change Policy,” we found that although some limited opportunities may exist for no-cost emission reductions, the studies substantially underestimated the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target — by omitting important components of the costs of emission reduction efforts, and by overestimating offsetting savings some of those efforts yield through improved energy efficiency.  In some cases, the studies focused on the costs of particular actions to reduce emissions, but failed to consider the effectiveness and costs of policies that would be necessary to bring about those actions.  Just a few of the flaws we identified lead to underestimation of annual costs on the order of billions of dollars.  Sadly, the studies therefore did not and do not offer reliable estimates of the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target.

This episode is a reminder of a period when similar studies were performed by the U.S. Department of Energy at the time of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations.  Like the California studies, the DOE (Interlaboratory Work Group) studies in the late 1990s suggested that substantial emission reductions could be achieved at no cost.  Those studies were terribly flawed, which was what led to their faulty conclusions.  I had thought that such arguments about massive “free lunches” in the energy efficiency and climate domain had long since been laid to rest.  The debates in California (and some of the rhetoric in Washington) prove otherwise.

While the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 sets an emissions target, critical policy design decisions remain to be made that will fundamentally affect the cost of the policy.  For example, policymakers must determine the emission sources that will be regulated to meet those targets, and the policy instruments that will be employed.  The California studies do not directly address the cost implications of these and other policy design decisions, and their overly optimistic findings may leave policymakers with an inadequate appreciation of the stakes associated with the decisions that lie ahead.

On the positive side, a careful evaluation of the California studies highlights some important policy design lessons that apply regardless of the extent to which no-cost emission reduction opportunities really exist.  Policies should be designed to account for uncertainty regarding emission reduction costs, much of which will not be resolved before policies must be enacted.  Also, consideration of the market failures that lead to excessive GHG emissions makes clear that to reduce emissions cost-effectively, policymakers should employ a market-based policy (such as cap-and-trade) as the core policy instrument.

The fact that the three California studies so egregiously underestimated the costs of achieving the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act should not be taken as indicating that the Act itself is necessarily without merit.  As I have discussed in previous posts, that judgment must rest – from an economic perspective – on an honest and rigorous comparison of the Act’s real benefits and real costs.