Hawthorne Redux

Editorials and articles designed to inspire more efficient use of electricity repeatedly cite examples of how different groups have used electricity more efficiently.

An example of such an article appeared in the September issue of EnergyBiz, though there are dozens of similar articles in a multitude of publications.

The article in question, Smart Cities, Smart Utilities, referenced an effort to reduce electricity usage in buildings by establishing teams in each building who would educate others on the importance of turning off lights when rooms were empty.

Results were impressive, with participating buildings reducing their usage of electricity by 6.2%.

Other examples of studies showing reduced use of electricity include where utilities have offered special programs to their customers for conserving electricity.

Invariably, those who participate in the program, usually a very small percentage of customers, achieve significant reductions in their use of electricity.

All of these experiments are touted as demonstrating it’s possible to make large reductions in the use of electricity.

What’s never mentioned in the publications touting energy efficiency are two factors that affect the outcome of the studies:

  • In instances where customers participate in a study, they are already predisposed to demonstrating that savings are possible. They are evangelists.
  • In cases such as the Smart Cities, Smart Utilities article, the results are skewed by the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect refers to studies made at the Western Union Manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, Illinois.

While, by modern standards, these studies are antediluvian, much can still be learned from them.

Simply stated, the Hawthorne studies were designed to establish that improved levels of lighting would result in the improved production of relays.

The production of relays produced by test groups, one a control group, the other subjected to changes in lighting, were monitored to see whether the output of the second group increased as lighting was improved.

Surprisingly, the output of both groups improved. It wasn’t just that the lighting had improved, it was that the increased attention given to everyone resulted in greater output.

Whenever an article touts improvements in the use of electricity from a study, care should be given to the conclusions being reached.

There is the myth that usage of electricity can be improved by 40 or 50%, and these studies are intended to support that myth.

Pinocchio. Photo by D. Dears
Pinocchio. Photo by D. Dears

There may have been improvements in energy efficiency, but these improvements were probably overstated because of the two effects described above.

The evangelists are the people who tend to participate in the studies undertaken by utilities, and they want to prove that the usage of electricity can be reduced.

In situations where the spotlight is on participants, they will all demonstrate improvements merely because of the attention being given them.

While the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and LED lighting have had a demonstrable effect on reducing the use of electricity, the pseudo scientific studies, reported by publications having a vested interest in reducing the use of electricity so as to cut CO2 emissions, should be viewed with some degree of skepticism.

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