Beth Karlin
“On any given street in the country, household energy use in identical homes can vary by up to 260 percent,” says Beth Karlin, a doctoral candidate in social ecology. “This shows that occupant behavior has a significant impact on residential energy consumption.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

Beth Karlin tries to live her life in an environmentally sustainable way. She carpools from her Venice home to UC Irvine. Her Volkswagen Golf runs on used vegetable oil procured from a local sushi restaurant. She avoids anything disposable – cups, bottles, napkins, plastic bags, etc. – and carries a reusable water bottle and coffee mug wherever she goes.

She knows, however, that it will take more than the actions of one person to preserve the planet’s precious natural resources.

A UC Irvine doctoral candidate in social ecology, Karlin studies what kind of feedback and information inspires consumers to cultivate Earth-friendly habits. Her goal is to change collective behavior when it comes to energy conservation.

“We definitely need to replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy and implement policy and economic solutions like cap and trade to cut carbon emissions, but behavior matters too,” she says. “When you change behaviors, you change attitudes. Citizens who are engaged with environmental issues will fight for policy changes.”

Karlin’s research and dedication have earned her a 2012-13 UCI/Stanley Behrens Public Impact Fellowship. This is the fifth year that UC Irvine’s Graduate Division has awarded $10,000 Public Impact Fellowships and the first year that two students meeting specific criteria have each received a $20,000 UCI/Stanley Behrens Public Impact Fellowship.

Behrens, a longtime supporter of undergraduate scholarships at UC Irvine, wanted to recognize doctoral students whose work could benefit the community. Karlin got to meet him and discuss her research and their shared interest in environmental and human security.

“Learning how he selected fellows with three generations of his family made me feel truly humbled by the honor, and I look forward to staying in touch with him throughout and beyond my fellowship tenure,” she says.

The award has allowed Karlin to take time off from her classroom duties and travel to New Zealand, where she’s serving as a visiting scholar for six weeks with the energy cultures group at the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.

Karlin spent a decade in K-12 education as a teacher, counselor, curriculum developer and administrator before applying to graduate school at UC Irvine. She taught environmental conservation to elementary school students and was motivated to pursue a doctorate as a way to influence environmental policy and teach at the university level.

“On any given street in the country, household energy use in identical homes can vary by up to 260 percent,” Karlin says. “This shows that occupant behavior has a substantial impact on residential energy consumption.” She adds that this impact can have significant environmental benefit, potentially saving up to 300 million tons of greenhouse gases per year – twice the annual emissions of all three Scandinavian countries combined.

People should be able to approach energy usage as they do grocery shopping, Karlin says. Supermarkets provide excellent feedback in the form of receipts that detail items purchased, costs and savings, she points out. Monthly energy bills, on the other hand, lack such helpful information.

“We can have the most energy-efficient appliances, but it won’t matter much if individuals are still using them inefficiently,” Karlin notes. “Many people fail to do even the most basic things, such as clean the dust off refrigerator coils, check the toilet tank for leaks or turn off the lights when they leave a room.”

She defines feedback as information about the results of an action that can be used to influence future actions – either reinforcing the status quo or suggesting change. Thanks to advances in technology and infrastructure, Karlin says, it’s easier for utility companies to collect and disseminate such information to consumers quickly and cheaply.

Southern California Edison recently installed 5 million digital “smart meters” for its residential and business customers. The devices employ wireless technology to transmit encrypted data on electricity usage back to the utility company. Customers can monitor their consumption with online tools that track peak hours and can take advantage of incentive programs to save energy and money, according to SCE.

Karlin’s preliminary findings show that certain populations are more likely to respond to feedback than others. These include homeowners, people who care about the environment and highly educated consumers.

So how do utility companies reach people who don’t fall into these categories? For starters, Karlin says, they could make energy conservation fun.

One method she’s testing utilizes “social gaming” to encourage energy-efficient behavior. She’s working with SCE and startup company Zema Good on a pilot study to target online gamers – say, individuals who spend hours playing “FarmVille” on Facebook – with such strategies as the awarding of points, levels, badges and prizes.

Karlin hopes her findings help empower consumers to change their habits, save money and protect the environment.

“I truly believe that the role of a researcher is not only to better understand the world but also to improve it,” she says. “I want my work to serve both purposes.”