MIT-Berkeley Research Effort Takes on Energy Efficiency

MIT-Berkeley Research Effort Takes on Energy Efficiency
The collaboration will plumb the mystery of why energy efficiency measures that look great on paper sometimes don't work (Photograph by G Fletcher/Getty Images)
Photograph by G Fletcher/Getty Images

We all know that air conditioning eats up an enormous amount of energy. We also know that installing ceiling fans would allow us to use the air conditioner a lot less. And we all know the savings over time would pay for the ceiling fan. So why aren’t there more people buying ceiling fans?

That question, and many more like it, are at the center of a research project launched by the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and MIT’s Center for Energy & Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR). The initiative, known as the E2e Project, will work to understand cost-effective ways to reduce energy use and the obstacles that sometimes get in the way.

Drawing on the skills of both engineers and economists from MIT and Berkeley, the project derives its name from its mission: finding a smart way to go from using a larger amount of energy, or “E,” to a smaller amount of energy, or “e.”

Much of the impetus for this project comes from the McKinsey Curve, a cost curve that asserts that there are “negative cost” energy efficiency investments that essentially pay for themselves. “There’s a fair bit of evidence out there that suggests there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of energy savings, but much of that evidence is based on engineering models,” says E2e co-director Christopher Knittel, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and CEEPR co-director. “Much of the engineering research ignores behavioral changes that might come in response to those investments, and those behavioral changes can manifest themselves in many ways.”

For example, Knittel says, households might turn their thermostat down in the summer or up in the winter if heating and cooling homes become more energy-efficient. Such behaviors, which reduce the benefits of energy efficiency, aren’t accounted for in engineering models, he says.

One study undertaken by E2e will determine how much energy the federal Weatherization Assistance Program saves. The project examines low-income households in Michigan that received free efficiency upgrades, such as insulation and weatherproofing, and audits their energy use over time to find out why actual efficiency gains are less than expected. Final results are expected later this year.

According to Knittel, E2e has three main objectives. One is to determine whether these “negative-cost” investments truly exist. The second is to understand which of these investments has the greatest return on investment. And third, E2e will try to understand why consumers and companies aren’t making these investments if they truly have a negative cost.

E2e’s co-director, Professor Catherine Wolfram, an associate professor at Haas and co-director of the Energy Institute, says E2e has a broader goal, too: “At the heart, I think we’re interested in finding the lowest-cost way to mitigate climate change.” She adds, “In the short term we hope to deliver to policymakers some really good information about where human behavior might influence energy efficiency technology and policy.”

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