From left, Jennifer Cole, Jessica McDonald, Xinyuan Wen

By Sergio Tovar, Social Media Specialist

DURHAM, N.C. – Three former Nicholas School of the Environment students have turned the findings of their 2016 Master’s Project, on regional differences in what motivates homeowners to implement energy-efficiency upgrades, into their first journal publication.

Master of Environmental Management graduates Jennifer Cole, Jessica McDonald and Xinyan Wen used their group project to write a peer-reviewed paper, “Marketing energy efficiency: perceived benefits and barriers to home energy efficiency,” that was published in the journal Energy Efficiency last month.

“This really goes to show how the Master’s Project can be leveraged for robust research,” says McDonald. “As students are pursuing their MP and coming up with ideas, they should keep in mind that the research they do could be turned into a paper.”

The paper shows that while cost savings are the most commonly cited reason for making energy-efficiency upgrades nationwide, the importance of other factors – such as environmental benefits, or home comfort – varied by region.

Cole, who led the effort to get the manuscript published, explains that she went into the MP process knowing she would be applying to a doctoral program, so wanted to get a head start on academic research.

“It aligned with my career goals and the other two team members were also enthusiastic and on board with trying to make that one of our end goals,” says Cole, who’s now a PhD student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

After presenting a poster on the research at the Behavior Energy and Climate Conference, Cole received an invitation from Energy Efficiency seeking submissions for an upcoming behavioral-focused issue its editors were planning.

Juli Plant Grainger Professor of Global Environmental Health Randall Kramer, the group’s advisor and a co-author on the paper, says the yearlong task of getting the research published taught his former students valuable skills.

“It exposed them to the publication process – how do you take your ideas and express them succinctly in a journal article format, responding to reviewers, making improvements and turning something back around in a timely fashion,” he says.

The paper, based on two national surveys the students designed and analyzed under Kramer’s guidance, found that people across the country think most about saving money and making a good investment when they consider energy efficiency. Conversely, the perceived high cost of energy-efficiency improvements was the most commonly-cited barrier to making upgrades.

Other perceived pros and cons varied by region. Increased home comfort was more important than protecting the environment to homeowners in all regions but the West, while improving the resale value of their homes was more important in the Northeast than elsewhere.  

“The study confirmed that economic considerations were the most important factor for people’s decisions on whether or not to invest in home energy improvements,” says Kramer. “It also found that messaging about energy efficiency should take into account regional differences in perceived benefits.”

Industry can use the paper’s findings to fine-tune marketing materials that promote energy-efficiency improvements, the former students say. Nationwide, utilities and retailers need to highlight cost savings while also emphasizing that energy efficiency is a good investment, brings new technology into the home, and increases comfort.

In the West, promoting environmental benefits could also prove persuasive, while in the Northeast a focus on increasing the resale value of their homes could be effective.

“These cultural differences between the regions of the country is a key takeaway,” says Cole. “Sometimes they’re not something people think about, they just assume everyone will think about energy efficiency the same no matter where they are.”

The client-based Master’s Project was proposed by the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative. Alumnus Jason Elliott (MEM/MF’14), the program’s former coordinator and current assistant director of Sustainable Duke, also advised the group.

Kramer, who also serves as deputy director of the Duke Global Health Institute, emphasizes that the group’s project dispels the misconception that Master students in professional degree programs don’t get valuable research experience.

“Most Master’s Projects are driven by one or more research questions,” he says. “The students may not be testing hypotheses, but they’re still addressing a question the client or the group sets out to answer using a variety of research methods.”

CITATION: “Marketing energy efficiency: Perceived benefits and barriers to home energy efficiency,” Jennifer C. Cole, Jessica B. McDonald, Xinyuan Wen and Randall A. Kramer. Energy Efficiency, Jan. 15, 2018.