Changing consumer behavior just got harder for utilities

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The plight of utilities to change consumer energy consumption behavior just got more difficult.

Research conducted by the Shelton Group found that 18 percent of Americans blame their utility and 25 percent blame their inefficient home for their rising energy bills rather than their own increasing energy use. Further, even those who have changed their consumption habits or made energy-efficient upgrades believe that their utility bills have gone up or remained the same.

"We're seeing an unfortunate consumer tendency to avoid responsibility for wasting energy. Instead, more people are blaming outside forces over which they feel they have little or no control," said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group. "It's a case of learned helplessness: People are giving up on conserving energy because they think there's nothing they can do."

Regardless of consumers' high tolerance for bill increases and their unrealistic expectations for return on their energy investments, utilities can intervene more so than they already have.

For example, when customers were offered a solar energy lease with no money down, their interest jumped to more than 60 percent. This increased desire for solar connects back to what the research found to be consumers' desire for an 85 percent reduction in monthly bills. Installing solar is, most likely, the only way most could achieve such a reduction. This may be another clue to some Americans' emerging desire to pull away from today's centralized energy systems and establish personal energy independence, the research contends.

Further, Shelton recommends utilities provide more smart meters and energy monitoring tools to get consumers more engaged and educated on their energy consumption;  offer incentives that reward multiple energy-efficient improvements, rather than one-off improvements; and shift to time-of-use billing to give homeowners new incentive to conserve energy at peak-use times.

"It's all about giving consumers a feeling of control," Shelton said. "Americans want power over their utility bills, and right now, they feel they don't have that."

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