Have you ever driven past one of those radar speed signs that indicates how fast you are going and flashes a warning if you are speeding? If yes, did it cause you to slow down?
If you answered yes to both questions then you are in the majority when it comes to driving behaviour.
More and more cities and towns are spending significant amounts of money to install these signs because they are very effective at reducing average traffic speed. It is worth giving some thought to why that is.
In every case the radar sign is replacing a simple metal sign that clearly indicated the maximum speed allowed. So there was no confusion about what driving behaviour was expected; and yet the signs were often ignored. But when radar signs are installed drivers tend to adhere more closely to the speed limits.
There have been numerous studies on this topic and the consensus is that these signs increase our awareness of how we are behaving. In other words, it is not that we are unwilling to drive within the speed limit – it is just that we are not aware of the fact that we are speeding.
You might expect that the effectiveness of these signs would diminish over time as people get used to where they are and come to realize that speeding tickets are not generated by these signs. But the exact opposite is true. The longer one of these signs exists at any particular location, the more effective it is at reducing traffic speed. The graphic below shows results from a study conducted by the City of Bellevue, Washington after more than 10 years experience with these signs.
So what does this have to do with energy use and conservation? I think that the main reason that we are not more consistent about energy conservation is that we are not aware of how much energy we are wasting on a daily basis. Lights get left on, clothes dryers get run in the early evening, thermostats are not programmed to reduce heating and cooling when houses and offices are not occupied.
Making the public aware of energy usage in real time has been one of the tools used in post-Fukushima Japan. Energy usage is reported through the media on a color coded scale similar to the U.S. Terrorist Threat warnings; green is less than 90% of capacity, yellow indicates that 90-95 percent of capacity is being used, orange tells customers that they are using up to 97 percent of available capacity.
Japanese office and factory workers cope with thermostats set at 83 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and verbal alarms are issued on office intercoms when energy usage within a building is exceeding targets.
The result of all this public education was a 15% reduction in electricity demand the first summer after safety concerns shut down 50 of the 52 nuclear reactors in Japan. This reduction in electricity usage could not be sustained in 2012 as consumers grew weary of hot and sticky summer days and cold winter nights. Even so, peak demand was still reduced by more than 10% as compared to pre-Fukushima years.
Only time will tell if energy conservation is the new norm in Japan. But it seems likely that there will be at least some long-term impact on energy demand, particularly at those peak times for a few weeks in the winter and summer.
The lessons to be learned from radar speeding signs and the approach to public awareness regarding electricity usage in Japan are clear. The behaviour of the general public can be changed. But it takes a very visible and consistent communication strategy to bring about the change and sustain it over the long term.
The Japanese have demonstrated that a reduction in electricity demand of at least 10% is possible. That may not seem radical but in most countries it would translate into a lot less coal burned, a lot less CO2 going into the atmosphere, and a significantly more sustainable energy future. Personally I wouldn't mind seeing a flashing sign that said "Your usage - 3 KW - turn off the hot tub!"
Finally, if you really want to know what life will be like if we don't get our act together in terms of conservation and the development of utility-scale energy storage solutions you might want to check out the Toyko Electric Company instructions on what to do during a "blackout".