Climate Dispatch: The human element (Opinion)

As a parent, I will occasionally talk to my children about what they want to do when they grow up. Sometimes, we take it a step further and discuss who they wish to be. These conversations inevitably end with me making an (admittedly cliché) point that they will not achieve their objectives in one fell swoop. Instead, they must take many incremental steps in the ‘right’ direction.

It occurs to me that the same observation is relevant to achieving our collective climate action objectives. There are seemingly as many versions of greenhouse gas reduction commitments as there are organizations making them. Arguments rage over precise pathways to achieve decarbonization, how to define targets, and by what timeframes such targets should be achieved. It is encouraging that the need to reverse human induced global climate impacts is now recognized as a fundamental imperative no longer up for debate. Regardless of the myriad opinions on which strategy is correct, we should all recognize that any action resulting in a reduction of GHG emissions is an action that takes us closer to our objective. No matter how small, it’s still a step in the ‘right’ direction.

Electrification is a critical pathway towards decarbonization, and the Truckee Donner Public Utility District has a full set of incentives to help you electrify your home. But we must not overlook mundane actions such as turning off lights, setting back thermostat set-points, and cutting down excessive shower times. Such behaviors are likely much more important than replacing all our appliances with the latest tech. Behind every advanced technology and shiny appliance is a human action or behavior driving its use. If we wish to achieve our climate objectives, we need to nurture sustainable behaviors when using our efficient technologies. Otherwise, we will be walking away from our objectives, not towards them. This a well-documented reality.

Before coming to TDPUD, I spent a little over a decade researching how energy efficiency technologies perform in real world applications. I observed many instances where a new technology induced changes in the user’s behavioral patterns which muted, or even eliminated the technology’s potential to save energy. Notable examples include LED light-bulbs and on-demand hot water heaters, commonly found in residences around the country. 

The energy savings potential for LED lighting is contingent on two properties: bulb wattage and hours of use. Bulb wattages are easy data to collect. Hours of use are more difficult to resolve. Many studies were done directly monitoring on/off times for bulbs around residential homes. As the data poured in, we discovered that light sockets with LEDs were on for longer hours than their less efficient siblings. It turns out that individuals felt ‘so good’ about their efficient LEDs they didn’t bother to turn them off. After all, “they are still using less energy than they used to.” While the technology worked as expected, users made decisions to apply it in a way that walked away from our climate objectives – undercutting its potential.

Back in 2010 instant hot water heaters were all the rage in energy efficiency circles. The engineer types, like myself, saw a lot of potential to conserve gas. Instant heaters did not need to maintain a massive tank of hot water at high temperatures (imagine what happens to a bucket of hot water in your garage mid-winter). But human behavior flipped our expectations. In hind-sight, we should have known that when provided the opportunity for infinitely long warm showers, there would be takers. You guessed it. Instant hot water heaters resulted in more hot water use than their tank counterparts.

Heat pumps, LED lighting, and electric appliances are wonderful tools which, if used properly, will help us achieve our collective climate action goals. However, history demonstrates if we don’t cultivate our propensity to make sustainable (‘right’) decisions in small things, the potential of these modern technologies will be muted or eliminated.

Currently, I am working on getting my kids to close the door behind them and be aware of the heating energy open doors waste. A small step, yes, but it lays the groundwork for how they connect their individual actions to a bigger picture. If they can learn how to close doors after themselves, I’m confident that our community can also learn how to engrain these behaviors into our everyday lives too.

To learn about more everyday actions you can take, visit our website (

Steven Keates lives in Truckee and has spent over a decade researching energy technology and policy. He currently leads the demand side management group at Truckee Donner Public Utility District where he focuses on supporting the community through sustainability and conservation. Steven is an avid climber, skier, and musician. He and his wife can be found with their three boys exploring the mountains and figuring out how to get everyone to their sporting events.

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