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Why Choosing Solar Panels or a Hybrid Car Has More Impact Than You Think

By Melissa Breyer - Updated February 06, 2020

As it turns out, personal energy choices can be contagious.

Sometimes trying to make a difference feels like such an uphill battle. You take your reusable totes to the store, try not to waste food, drive a hybrid car – and to what end? Does it really matter when the biggest industries and leading policymakers act as if the climate crisis doesn't exist?

The short answer: Yes, individual actions matter!

A recent report by the Center for Behavior and the Environment concluded that if 10 percent of Americans adopted seven basic changes, we could cut domestic emissions by 8 percent in 6 years – despite a lack of policy. The authors wrote:

"...a focus on policy alone ignores the breadth of available pathways for action and the urgency of acting on a faster timeline than the policy process often allows. Actions taken voluntarily at the individual and household level can significantly contribute to overall emissions reductions and can do so in the absence of policy."

Energy choices can be contagious

So now that we've established that individual lifestyle choices matter, how do we get more people to hop on the bandwagon? Well, as it turns out, energy choices are catchy. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES;) explains:


A growing body of research shows that the behavior of peers has a significant influence on an individual's energy-related decisions, whether it's choosing to install solar panels or to purchase a hybrid vehicle. In short, personal energy choices can be contagious.

Why this is the case isn't exactly clear, so a team of interdisciplinary researchers teamed up on a paper to try and figure out this excellent phenomenon.

"The evidence on peer influence in energy has been growing but people haven't connected it to theories in social psychology that can help provide a deeper understanding of how persuasion works, how that word of mouth works, and what are some of the channels by which peer influence makes an impact," said Kenneth Gillingham, associate professor of environmental and energy economics at F&ES; and corresponding author on the paper.

"We wanted to bridge those fields of literatures so that we can better understand how peer effects and contagion work, why they work, and why they're so powerful."

The scholars reviewed literature across various fields – like economics, marketing, sociology, and psychology – on the influence of peer effects. Across the different disciplines they found "a basic tendency for the energy-related behaviors of individuals to be influenced by members of a peer group." Remarkably, they note that:

"Sometimes this influence is an even more important factor than cost or convenience."

As an example, they cite several studies which concluded that the chances of someone installing solar panels went up as more solar panels were installed in their neighborhood. Further, as the study notes:

"Within the energy domain, researchers most commonly study peer effects based on spatial proximity. These effects have been demonstrated for the adoption of several clean energy technologies, including solar rooftop systems, hybrid and electric vehicles, cookstoves and energy efficient products."

The paper cites two factors of "peer influence" that are likely at play.

  1. Interpersonal communication and persuasion, which can include observation of energy choices (such as seeing solar panels on a neighbor's roof), word-of-mouth communication, and the influence of trusted community leaders.

  2. Normative social influence, in which social norms are passively communicated as shared standards that constrain or guide the behavior within a group.

As makes sense, opting for a change that comes with a hefty price tag is easier when someone can talk to someone else who has already adopted said change. "Friends and family are often among the most trusted sources of information," said co-author Kimberly Wolske. "Policies and programs that seek to promote low carbon technologies may benefit from enlisting the help of peers who have already adopted them."

The paper is much more detailed and nuanced than space allows for here – but it's fascinating. And hopeful. The authors believe further research could really improve our understanding of why peer effects work and how they can be employed to inspire more sustainable energy choices.

And the takeaway for those of trying to make a difference? Keep at it, and don't be shy in talking about it with your friends and neighbors. It's contagious, after all.

[See the individual actions Lloyd is taking here: Could you live the 1.5° lifestyle?]

The paper, Peer influence on household energy behaviours, was published in Nature Energy.

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