Local Organizations Will Help Develop Strategies for Underserved Communities

smart thermostat
Incentives through Mass Save are available to residents who install smart thermostats in their homes.

By Brooke Coupal

In an effort to combat climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in August offers incentives to Americans who take part in residential energy efficiency projects. But will the public participate?

Studies have shown that despite Massachusetts being one of the top-performing states in energy efficiency efforts, it has failed to deliver energy efficiency programs equitably.

“Low-to-moderate-income households with limited English proficiency, high energy burdens and who rent are less likely to benefit from these programs,” says Juliette Rooney-Varga, environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences professor and director of the Climate Change Initiative.

To overcome participation barriers, Rooney-Varga and her research team, consisting of Criminology and Justice Studies Prof. Arie Perliger and Ruairi O'Mahony, executive director of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, are looking at whether word-of-mouth, or social diffusion, can accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency programs among underserved communities. The first phase of this work is funded by a $50,000 National Science Foundation CIVIC Planning Grant.

The researchers are focusing their study on the city of Lowell and how they can reach those residents through existing social networks, as opposed to mass mailings and government websites.

“Lowell is great because it’s a very diverse, multi-ethnic city, and it allows us to see if our model can get through to traditionally hard-to-reach populations,” Perliger says. 

In addition to the city of Lowell, the researchers will work with local organizations Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and All in Energy to identify influential early adopters who can share information about Mass Save – the commonwealth’s leading energy efficiency program provider. Residents who use Mass Save programs can take advantage of incentives that include up to a $15,000 rebate for installing ground-source heat pumps, up to a $2,750 rebate for upgrading to natural gas heating equipment, and up to $100 rebate for installing a smart or programmable thermostat.

“Lowell is great because it’s a very diverse, multi-ethnic city, and it allows us to see if our model can get through to traditionally hard-to-reach populations.” -Criminology and Justice Studies Prof. Arie Perliger
The researchers will examine different approaches that can be used to get adopters to share messages about energy efficiency programs, including through social recognition initiatives and awards.

They will also look at how online platforms can be used to effectively get information out to the public.

“In today’s world, people get their information from online platforms and not through advertising campaigns for TV, so we need to find ways to use social networks to convey information to those hard-to-reach communities,” says Perliger. “Most of those communities have Facebook pages, so if we can gain their trust and share information in their own online forums, we can really overcome any of the barriers that prevent these communities from taking advantage of the programs.”

The communities’ face-to-face events are equally as important, says Rooney-Varga.

“Communication about a product from a trusted, close messenger can increase the likelihood of adoption by up to 50 times and is much more effective than any form of advertising,” she says.

Once the researchers gain insight into the best social diffusion strategies, they hope to get additional financial support to implement and further study these practices. From there, other communities could use their findings to encourage the adoption of energy efficiency programs, whether at the state level with Mass Save or the federal level with the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Our project has the potential to transform the way that community officials and leaders increase participation in energy efficiency programs, generating scalable, strategic approaches to accelerate their adoption and cutting energy demand, costs and emissions for underserved populations,” says Rooney-Varga.