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Energy-efficient homes: yes, we want them. But we haven’t done the work.

green home (Shutterstock)

There have never been more options to manage your energy use at home. If energy nerdery is your thing, tools and services abound to help you cut consumption, increase efficiency, and generate your own electricity. In fact, "behind the meter" energy management is one of the hottest topics in the energy world today, full of all kinds of hype and utopian predictions (some of which I have made myself).

And why not? Energy management can be fun. It’s like a puzzle — and as you solve it, you do something tangible to cut your emissions and contribute to the climate fight.

So it’s worth it, for us energy journalists at least, to take a deep breath and remember that the home energy management revolution hasn’t actually arrived yet. Things are shifting, especially among younger customers, but managing your own energy is still more of a hassle and expense than most homeowners want to take on.

For evidence, we turn to the research firm Deloitte, which just released its annual survey of residential and business customers on the subject of energy management. There’s lots of info to dig through, but I’m going to focus on residential customers — and particularly on millennials, which as we all know are the center of the universe.

Homeowners have good intentions, despite low energy prices

The good news is that saving energy is still something homeowners want. Deloitte has been doing this survey since 2011, when the recession was biting and energy prices were higher. Since then, the economy has picked up and energy has reached record low prices, but despite that, interest in managing and reducing home energy consumption has remained on the upswing.

Most households expect their energy use to remain steady or decline:

energy use (Deloitte)

Concern over climate change and resource depletion has risen steadily, as has concern over personal carbon footprint. While affordable energy is still residential customers’ top concern, at 59 percent, "utilizing clean energy sources" comes in a close second, at 56 percent.

And that interest is led by millennials, who, relative to older demographics, "are more concerned about shifting to cleaner sources of energy, more willing to pay for this shift through a surcharge in their electricity bills, and more interested in incentives for saving electricity and purchasing related technologies." They are also more likely to believe that government and utilities should take an active role in encouraging energy-saving behaviors and technology.

Financial versus social motivations

Here’s an interesting side note: Deloitte sees a conflict beginning to emerge between utility incentives — typically in the form of rebates for the purchase of various energy-efficient equipment — and the social drivers of millennial concern:

[T]he allure of the traditional rebate model appears to be waning. In a recent interview conducted by Deloitte, Guy Champniss, vice president of consumer science at Enervee, explained that Millennials are frequently motivated by the social aspects of making better choices about energy use, and more broadly about sustainability. Once money is introduced into the equation, the desired behavior is often "crowded out" by the financial incentive and trails off, as they try to internally reconcile their motivations for taking action.

This is consistent with lots of recent research showing that self-interested financial motivations and more pro-social motivations coexist uneasily. It might be worth it for some utilities to experiment with programs that draw on that latter motivation rather than the former, especially as millennials become a bigger part of the customer base.

Millennials are the most likely to go solar

Millennials are also the most inclined to go solar, though the expense of solar panels remains the biggest (perceived) barrier for all demographics. One new possibility is community solar, whereby customers who can’t afford their own solar installation, or who don’t have a suitable roof, can buy into a shared installation.

Millennials are into that, too:

interest in community solar (Deloitte)

Intentions are not translating into action

Now, here’s the punchline. Though interest in energy management continues to rise, and customers, especially millennials, express good intentions, actual uptake of serious energy management techniques and technologies remains slow.

Sure, customers are still willing to buy LED bulbs, turn off lights, and unplug electrical devices when they’re not in use (or at least claim to do those things in surveys), but they are not moving to the bigger steps.

In the previous year’s survey, when asked about the five most important things they could envision themselves doing in the future to save energy, they cited: better insulating their homes, buying energy-efficient appliances, and installing more efficient windows and doors.

In this year’s survey, those numbers stayed almost exactly the same — but the proportion of people actually doing those things has declined. Deloitte blames "expense, lack of expertise, and concerns about projects being ‘too big to tackle.'"

Few people are using "smart" energy devices

How about all these "smart" devices that are supposed to make energy management hipper and easier, like the Nest thermostat?

Only 5 percent report having a smart thermostat, and only 12 percent are considering buying one in the next year. Why?

why not buy a smart thermostat? (Deloitte)

Two things are evident here.

One, most people still think a normal thermostat works just fine! That suggests customers in general have not been sold on the promise of networked energy management that they can fiddle with through a smartphone app.

Two, the younger you are, the more likely you are to think that a smart device might be an improvement ... but also to think that such devices are too expensive.

For all the promise, home energy management remains a bit of a pain

None of this should come as much of a surprise.

Residential building efficiency has been hyped as an easy, cost-positive way to reduce energy use and emissions forever, but it has proven a Herculean task to induce homeowners to actually do anything — at least anything more difficult than flipping a light switch.

Even with all the innovations underway to make it easier for homeowners to take these steps, they still remain, uh, easily daunted.

And so far, "smart" technologies haven’t reached them. To the extent that they’ve heard the hype, they’re not convinced. And it’s not entirely clear why they should be — a smart meter or smart thermostat alone won’t do much. What’s needed is a full home energy management system and, more importantly, utility policies that allow consumers to take advantage of variable time-of-use pricing and other forms of flexible market participation.

Without those utility reforms, there’s only so smart any thermostat can get. There’s no point being networked if the network itself remains dumb and unidirectional.

But there is hope. Utilities are beginning to change here and there. All sorts of energy management technologies are under furious development. And most of all, millennials, between snapping all those selfies, seem eager to push the area forward.