Hundreds of behavioral energy efficiency programs have sprung up across the U.S. in the past five years, but the effectiveness of the programs -- both in terms of cost savings and reduced energy use -- can be difficult to gauge.

Of nearly 300 programs, a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy was able to accurately calculate the cost of saved energy from only ten programs.

The average cost of saved energy from the ten programs was 1.61 cents per kilowatt-hour, with an assumed program length of 1.5 years. Additionally, larger utilities appear to achieve larger returns than do their smaller counterparts.

The report details the different types of behavioral programs, which ACEEE defined as separate from “widget” programs that rely on physical energy efficiency improvements.

“This struggle over a clear definition of behavioral programs has real-world consequences. Behavioral programs must be defined separately from widget measures in order to support their growth and implementation,” the report states. “On the other hand, because all energy consumption involves behavior to some degree, proponents could label any program behavioral.”

To help utilities and regulators better define and measure behavioral programs, ACEEE offers a new taxonomy of utility-run behavior programs that breaks them into three major categories:

Cognition: Programs that focus on delivering information to consumers.  (This includes general communication efforts, enhanced billing and bill inserts, social media and classroom-based education.)

Calculus: Programs that rely on consumers making economically rational decisions. (This includes real-time and asynchronous feedback, dynamic pricing, games, incentives and rebates and home energy audits.)

Social interaction: Programs whose key drivers are social interaction and belonging. (This includes community-based social marketing, peer champions, online forums and incentive-based gifts.)

Although there are many types of behavioral programs, many utilities are not necessarily crafting the best programs or getting rewarded for the programs. “Many utility programs that effectively change behavior go unrecognized as behavior-based because of a lack of regulatory requirements or, conversely, barriers erected by regulations,” the study authors wrote. ACEEE suggests that one of the barriers to getting regulatory approval is the inconsistency in program labeling.

While the report was mostly preliminary, it also offered four steps forward for utilities that want to make the most of behavioral programs.

Stack. The types of programs might fit into three broad categories, but judiciously blending cues based on emotion, reason and social interaction into programs is key, according to ACEEE. Even though the report recommends stacked programs that have a multi-modal approach, the authors acknowledge, “This hypothesis will remain untested until we see more stacked programs in the marketplace.”

Track. Just like other areas of grid modernization, utilities need to rethink how they collect, analyze and report the data coming out of behavioral programs. This should include metrics that go beyond just energy savings.

Share. As with other utility programs, behavior-based energy efficiency programs can be improved upon if utilities share results and if reporting is standardized across the country instead of varying by state.

Coordinate. Sharing is only the first step. Programs that merge water, gas and electricity efficiency can often gain better results than siloed programs. That approach, however, requires a coordinated effort by regional utilities and a change to how programs are funded and evaluated by regulators.

Moving forward, consistent taxonomy and data collection will be critical, according to ACEEE. "Much work needs to be done in tracking, collecting, and analyzing behavior program data in order to document benefits and drive broader adoption," the report states. "Holistic programs that appeal to consumers through information, economic incentives, and social interaction are likely to achieve the greatest impact."