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Socially Undesirable Net Savings

By August 3, 2021November 17th, 2021Energy Rant

I’ve never been a parent to humans, but as I say to friends and companions, I was a child once, and I did have parents. Moreover, I’ve supervised and had dozens of people report up to me directly or indirectly. Plus, I love kid stories, so I may be more uh, qualified or knowledgeable than some prospective thirty-year-olds who are about to take the plunge. Sleep up, my friends!

Similarly, I have many roles in the utility-led efficiency business, conceptualizing, developing, delivering, and evaluating efficiency programs. I’m an engineer and not a social scientist but see above with the parent thing. An effective program developer should know who calls the shots in a web of manufacturers, distributors, equipment, architects, engineers, contractors, and yes, the folks who pay for projects and energy bills – the customer.

Customer Journeys and Forks in their Roads

Last week I left off writing, “program dollars need to be directed at education, training, and design assistance and directed away from cash incentives to customers.” Or, to put it another way, at least for equipment and design selection, critical decisions and failure or success points are moving up the chain and away from the customer. Successful service-centric programs like strategic energy management and retro-commissioning still need direct interaction with the energy user.

Net Savings, A Review

Ok. That is my setup for this week’s Rant: archaic approaches to determining attribution or net savings. To review definitions, the following is straight from NREL’s Uniform Methods Project:

  • Net savings: The difference in energy consumption with the program in place versus what consumption would have been without the program in place.
  • Gross savings: The difference in energy consumption with the energy-efficiency measures promoted by the program in place versus what consumption would have been without those measures in place.

Notice the definition of net savings “without the program” does not include words like energy savings or efficiency. That is only part of the decision if anything at all.

The ratio of net savings to gross savings is cleverly called net-to-gross (NTG). Free ridership is simply 1-NTG. Net savings and attributable savings, or attribution, are synonymous.

Donkey Tails

I performed an unscientific random grab of NTGs for a bunch of states and utilities. Most states, it seems, simply declare a NTG value (deemed). This may be because the administrators don’t want to look bad, don’t trust NTG consultants (good choice), and don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of ratepayer funds on these pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey exercises, and they don’t need the headaches.

So let’s look at the results for C&I, and where possible, programs that fall under the custom efficiency umbrella.

We see that State A, Utility 2’s consultant pinned the tail on one of the donkey’s front hooves. How can this data point be such an outlier? I will toss out some hypotheses, some of which were already alluded to, and y’all feel free to shoot at them in the comment box.

Social Desirability Bias

Social desirability bias, or SDB, is the tendency to look good or avoid embarrassment. This is one reason I started with the parenting discussion. Intelligent children, 2-4 years old, will catch social desirability bias and learn to lie, which is cognitively a good thing. Per the University of Toronto’s psych department, “The ability to bend the truth is a developmental milestone. Lying requires two ingredients. Children need to understand what’s in someone else’s mind—to know what they know and what they don’t know. [The second is] the power to plan ahead and curb unwanted actions.”

Social desirability bias is buried among the seven deadly sins I mentioned several times, including Think Like a Scientist. Maybe it’s pride to avoid embarrassment. Consider doctor visits or surveys. “What was the maximum number of drinks you’ve had in one sitting?” Questions about recovering therapeutics are classic. “Are you taking your medication and doing your therapy as instructed?” Or what about questions concerning sexuality or drug use? Uh oh! “Just take my vitals and let the blood draws talk, doc, and mind your own business.”

So we can see there is great temptation to bend reality, simply not know reality, or evasion (just get me out of here).

Here is one question, modified slightly, from a NTG battery: on a scale of one to ten, how much did the program contribute to you choosing efficiency over not efficiency? Why not just ask how inherently wasteful and ignorant they are?

I thought there must be ways to compensate for social desirability bias. Since I’m an engineer and couldn’t imagine any, I turned to Researchgate to find “scholarly articles” on the subject. I found one interesting paper titled, Reducing Social Desirability Bias Through Item Randomized Response – An Application to Measure Underreported Desired. They have a better definition of SDB: “people consciously provide untruthful, distorted answers in order to present themselves in a better light or prevent threats to image and self-esteem, and these response tendencies harm measurement validity.”

The paper goes on to say [revised for brevity], “SDB has sometimes been associated with dark-side topics in marketing such as materialism, compulsive buying, consumption of taboo products, brand familiarity, and brand liking. Other SDBs include consumption motivations [NTG anyone?], innovativeness, satisfaction, value priorities [NTG?], managerial decision making, and performance evaluations.

We’re out of time. This post presents the challenges, and the next post will offer some innovative solutions.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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