Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science

Chapter 3: Toward a Social Science Research Agenda on Energy

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The Alternative Energy Future

Despite several decades of social science research examining the societal aspects of energy (for a bibliography, see chapter 4), many issues are still poorly understood. This report echoes the 2010 PCAST recommendation that DOE and NSF develop and implement a multidisciplinary social science research program with input from the academic community, the private and nonprofit sectors, and state and local governments.1 As was recommended by PCAST, this research program should be integrated into DOE energy research and applied programs in order to accelerate the introduction and adoption of cleaner and more-efficient energy-supply and end-use technologies.

The workshop panel discussions and breakout groups identified many research questions related to behavior and decision making, policy analysis, and energy regulations that have particular relevance to the near- and long-term challenges facing policy makers. These questions group into three categories: individual behavior, decision making, and technology acceptance; incorporating human factors into policy design and analysis; and policy development and governance.

Individual behavior, decision making, and technology acceptance

Priority topics:

  1. How can technologies for energy production and efficient use be designed to address and overcome social and behavioral barriers to their widespread use? Answering this question will require understanding how people actually use and respond to household technologies such as smart meters and how this response differs from modeled behavior, as well as how people think and act in relation to energy production technologies and their siting.
  2. How could labels and certification programs be effectively designed to engage the intended users? How could this knowledge be integrated into existing government programs?
  3. On what bases do individuals and households make decisions about energy use? How can we help people make informed decisions, and how do people become motivated to take action?
  4. How could public utilities best approach consumers on dynamic pricing structures and adoption of smart grid technologies? Particularly useful would be an analysis of examples of effective and noneffective strategies for engaging the consumer at the local level on time-of-use electric billing and other pricing strategies.
Additional research questions:
  • How are energy-related norms and behavior influenced by social networks?
  • What is the role and impact of energy policies and programs on underrepresented populations?
  • What is the relative effectiveness of informational intervention compared to regulatory intervention? How should these types of intervention be combined to best promote beneficial behavior?

Incorporating human factors into policy design and analysis

Priority topics:

  1. How can behavioral research be better integrated into energy modeling?
  2. What policy designs are highly effective in encouraging people and organizations to undertake actions that have major practical potential but require great effort on their part?
  3. What behavioral changes have the greatest economic and technical potential? What additional information is needed on the technical potential of various behavioral interventions?

Additional research questions:

  • How does the effectiveness of individual and institutional incentives vary among regions, education levels, and socioeconomic groups?
  • How can field experiments on individual and institutional behavior contribute to policy design? In what areas is the need for new field experiments greatest?
  • Behavioral research on energy use is more abundant in Europe. How can this research be applied to policy development in the United States?

Policy development and governance

Priority topics:

  1. What is the relative effectiveness of existing energy policies? What tools should be developed to enable comparative policy analysis?
  2. What mechanisms are available or could be created to facilitate effective polycentric governance mechanisms?
  3. What is the role of government in the U.S. energy innovation system?

Additional research questions:

  • How can research on the management of common resources be applied to energy policy?
  • What guidelines can be developed for translating and scaling up the lessons from federal, state, local, and private practices?
  • How can policies and regulations be designed to anticipate and account for the vulnerabilities of the energy system in the face of climate change?
  • How does the rapid turnover of public utility commission chairs pose obstacles to collaboration among the fifty state commissions? How can these effects be minimized to facilitate collaborations and promote durable energy policies?
  • How do jurisdictional conflicts (especially between state and federal policies) impede public-private partnerships?

Participants emphasized that these questions will be best addressed through interdisciplinary, use-oriented research. This type of research will need to be more strongly valued and supported both by federal grant-making bodies and by academic institutions if researchers are to find answers to the most pressing questions regarding the societal dimensions of the energy future.

The questions listed above illustrate the range of social and behavioral questions that deserve greater attention, but they do not constitute a systematic research agenda. A productive next step would be for DOE and NSF to engage an appropriate scientific group to develop a detailed social and behavioral science research agenda on energy. The agenda should include both use-oriented and fundamental social and behavioral research related to energy supply, demand, reliability, security, technological innovation and diffusion, and policy.


1. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy (Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President, 2010),