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Research Profile - Loren Lutzenhiser
Research Profile - Loren Lutzenhiser

Convinced to conserve

A FUNNY THING happened during the 2001 energy crisis in California. As summer temperatures soared, people turned off their air conditioners—without being asked.

When surveyed about the reason, residents said it wasn't to save money. In fact, prices hadn't started to rise at that point. Rather, by voluntarily curbing their energy consumption, Californians said they felt like they were doing something to help their home state avert an energy crisis. And that made them feel good. Although he's studied consumer behavior for years, surveyor Loren Lutzenhiser (pictured above), professor of urban studies and planning, was surprised.

Before the survey, commissioned by the California Energy Commission, "It was assumed," says Lutzenhiser, "that people would tar and feather you" if you suggested they do without modern conveniences such as air conditioning. "That was the received wisdom, but that's not what happened."

Under the auspices of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Lutzenhiser has also studied such questions as who's in charge of creating a greener Portland skyline—finding that it's not just architects, but also developers and bankers. And he's looked at how the city of Portland and other Oregon governments decide whether to buy green—finding that it's not just purchasing managers, but a wide range of employees that decides what technology to buy and how to use it. In the future, Lutzenhiser hopes to shed light on how decisions are made by consumers and manufacturers.

There are two broad categories ripe for investigation, he says. First, the types of technology that are brought to market. After all, consumers can buy only from the list of choices they have. The second category is why consumers make the choices they do.

Bottom line, says Lutzenhiser, is understanding what motivates people to buy, not buy, conserve energy or not. This will be crucial as the world grapples with global warming.

[caption] What makes one family use more or less energy than its neighbor? Loren Lutzenhiser, professor of urban studies and planning, is interested in the answer.