We’re at the height of tax return preparation season here in the US, which means that families across the country are gathering ‘round the fireplace joyfully preparing their IRS Form 8942 (Application for Certification of Qualified Investments Eligible for Credits and Grants Under the Qualifying Therapeutic Discovery Project Program**) and discovering that it’s certifiably therapeutic to use a lot of qualified swear words during the tax preparation process.
No, actually, we’re all joyously awaiting our tax refunds and making big plans for spending the “windfall”, even though all it really is is the refund of excess money we just sort of gave the government to use for free for the year. It’s not really any different than if, say, a Kardashian sister asked us for an interest-free $2,000 loan for a year and we unhesitatingly did it (except that a Kardashian sister would probably be a lot more responsible with how she spent the money).
But I digress to a rant (a common affliction this time of year). The annual ritual of The Miracle of the Tax Refund got me thinking about how we now pay for household energy use, and whether one simple change could give people more incentive to make energy-efficient investments. The “windfall effect,” as one behavioral economist (http://j.mp/windfalleff) has called it, is the triumph of the enormous emotional impact of the day the tax refund arrives over rational economic behavior. (The fact that today’s savings interest rates in the US are so low they require scientific notation doesn’t help either, but this effect predates that phenomenon.)
Ignoring for a moment the (probably non-trivial) logistics of how it would be done, what if we moved from our current monthly electricity billing to annual billing? I’m not suggesting we ask people to alter household budgeting from making payments on the familiar monthly basis – being realistic, the bill would have to be split over the twelve months to be manageable for most families. But getting, reviewing, and truing up a single bill for a large amount each year might have some meaningful benefits for energy efficiency. The thought process goes somewhat like this:
- The mental accounting for energy efficiency expenditures becomes a bit stronger. Take a nominal “net 10% savings after cost” for efficiency improvements given a monthly $150 bill. Many people who would dismiss $15 a month as irrelevant would give different consideration to a savings of $180 a year, even though they are precisely the same. The time accounting of the money just isn’t done by most people, and $15 would tend to be dismissed as “not worth the trouble” while $180 would be seen as significant.
- Similarly, the outlay required to cover big jumps in usage would be more painful – and hence the behaviors that cause those jumps more likely to be avoided.
- Now, let’s say that the annual bill is based on last year’s usage (and paid in equal monthly installments). For a family that makes energy efficiency improvements over the year, they use less electricity, and after 12 months get… a refund! (Cue sounds of joyous celebration.) Since it’s 12-month cumulative savings total, the amount would tend to be, in the respect described above, “meaningful” - $15 gets lost in the daily shuffle of Happy Meals and parking tickets, but $180 – now that, the line of reasoning would go, you can do something with.
- While they’re thinking about what brought on the refund, there in some cases would be a feedback effect – “let’s use this money to buy more of the stuff that gets us these efficiency gains”. Probably only a small percentage of the refunds would be spent with this explicitly in mind, but even where this isn’t done, the conservation behavior itself is further encouraged.
(As a side note, I know that many providers do have “budget billing” systems that are a lot like this in practice. However, they are not linked to energy efficiency, and, unfairly or not, a lot of people see them as something that only those who struggle to pay their monthly bills do. This is another irrational storyline, of course, but one that has to be acknowledged. That likely means that this would have to be put in a more attractive light or, alternatively, be an across-the-board new policy for all customers rather than a self-selected “payment option”.)
While the whole thing isn’t quite as simple as I make it here, the joy of the annual refund shouldn’t be overlooked (and comes up in other non-tax contexts in amounts of that size range, like wholesale shopping clubs). While the capacity to make efficiency gains would - barring a steady stream of technological improvement - likely be exhausted over three to five years, even a small gain made consistently over that time period would go a long way toward meeting system-wide efficiency goals.
This emotional effect already influences us to make questionable “investments”, like sizable annual interest-free loans to Kardashian sisters or the government – why not use the sentiment to drive something with so much more benefit across the board? And, to make it even better, none of that pesky searching for all those receipts for your Qualified Investments Eligible for Credits and Grants Under the Qualifying Therapeutic Discovery Project Program!
** No, I did not make this form up; you can look it up if you dare.