Energy Policy

American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Fri talks strengthening policy through social science

How can lawmakers use social science to strengthen energy policy? During today's OnPoint, Robert Fri, visiting scholar at Resources for the Future and chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' project on alternative energy and the social sciences, discusses AAAS' work on energy policy outlook in light of social science implications. He explains why such a disconnect exists between energy legislation and regulations and consumers' adoption of new technologies.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Robert Fri, a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future and chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on alternative energy and the social sciences. Bob, thanks for coming on the show.

Robert Fri: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Bob, the economy has released a report that focuses on strengthening energy policy through social science. The work is been supported by DOE and the National Science Foundation. How could the outlook on energy policy change if lawmakers took a better look, a closer look at social science?

Robert Fri: Well, the central problem is that we know we need a lot of new technology in order to deal with our energy problems and our climate problem. And it's at the province of physical scientists and engineers to develop that new technology. But there's another step, and that is that individuals and institutions have to adopt that technology in sufficient quantity to make a real difference in how we use energy. And that's the province of social scientists, how to help people understand how to go about adopting this technology and really make it successful.

Monica Trauzzi: And up until this point, do you feel that there's been a real disconnect between the policies that are being implemented and how the consumer is approaching it?

Robert Fri: Largely, yeah. I mean, if you look at classical paradoxes, the energy efficiency paradox, where, as you know, there's been a lot of studies that economically we all ought to be very much more efficient, but we're not. And the question is, well, why don't people do the smart thing? And when you begin to look at why that is the case, you discover that people's behavior kind of resist making that change, even if the economics are looking pretty good. And so the same thing is true though with new windmill projects, wind farm projects. In the Intermountain West, it's just about every one of them attract some kind of an opposition group. Typically not because they think renewable energy is a bad idea, but because they don't like the idea of these huge wind farms industrializing their rural culture. So, those are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed and, in many cases, they just have not been well addressed.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you think the biggest misconception is relating to consumers adoption of new technologies?

Robert Fri: Well, you could probably come up with a really long list, but my favorite is that adopting new technology is kind of hard for individuals who aren't technologists, which is most of us. And so, for example, if you wanted to buy a new heating and air-conditioning unit, we all know there are wonderful new technologies out there that are very efficient, but to buy that, you don't buy one every day. You know, this isn't like going to the supermarket. You buy one every 10 or 20 years and you have no experience in it. So, in addition to finding it an attractive idea, you need to have somebody who would come out and explain the thing to you, somebody who can -- you trust, who will install it, some kind of a warranty that you think is reliable, somebody to service the thing after it's installed. And all of that has to be brought together in order for you to do what the economists say you ought to do. And it's that kind of a disconnect that causes so much of our problem.

Monica Trauzzi: Does the public's acceptance of new technologies differ when you consider transportation versus stationary sources of energy?

Robert Fri: Well, the difference in this sense, new stationary sources of energy tend to be built around projects, whether it's coal plants or hydro-fracking and natural gas or even wind farms, that attract opposition to individual projects. In the case of transportation, it's more a question of trying to get people to buy a Prius and so it's a lot of individual decisions that have to be taken and I don't think there's any particular organized opposition to more efficient cars, but getting someone to buy one of those instead of the one they've been buying for the last 20 years can be hard.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is the key then to engage consumers more? And if you do, then do you risk having all these NIMBY issues that, you know, we've been seeing around the country? And does that sort of stop growth in new technologies?

Robert Fri: Well, it's hard. I mean, I don't think that it stops growth, but you have to handle it in a sensible way and there are outfits that know how to do that. A famous dean at Harvard once said that being responsive is not the same as saying yes. And in a lot of these projects, it's really a matter of making sure that everybody is heard and their views are taken seriously into consideration and when the final decision is made, there's an explanation of why we didn't do it your way. And I think most people think that's fair, but it isn't always done very successfully by project developers.

Monica Trauzzi: So then how should policymakers be using peoples' behavior to influence energy policy moving forward?

Robert Fri: Well, that's what -- we have a lot of work to figure that out. There's a number of individual studies by social scientists in half the cases in New York State for example, that show that it works. But figuring out how to grow it and bring it to scale and to get the social science community really interested in doing research related to energy problems are problems we haven't solved yet.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end right there. Thank you for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Robert Fri: OK, my pleasure, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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