Kim Wolske

Kim Wolske is a research associate professor at Harris and fellow with the Energy Policy Institute. She studies environmental, social, and cognitive psychology to understand the behavioral dimensions of energy issues. Her recent work investigates incentives for households to adopt solar energy sources and making solar power more accessible. Wolske is focused on how the framing of climate change solutions influences public perception and support for mitigation policies and adoption of efficient home systems.

We interviewed Wolske about her research and its implications for climate policy.

How would you describe your research agenda?

Much of my research focuses on energy technology adoption. I've spent the last decade looking at solar panel adoption, studying perceptions of geoengineering technologies, and trying to understand how people think about climate change mitigation.

There are many technologies available to help address climate change, but policies to encourage their adoption are not always compatible with how people think about energy or make decisions. There's a lot we can draw from behavioral science to better present information or structure programs to be more compatible with human nature.

What have you found most striking?

How often we fail to leverage the full range of motivations that compel people to act!

In the energy sector, it’s commonly assumed that people will invest in energy efficiency or conserve energy “to save money.” But, even when programs are fully subsidized (such as the federal weatherization program), people can be reluctant to sign up.

I recently studied California’s low-income solar program, which offers solar panels at no cost to eligible homeowners. Despite the solar panels being “free,” finding and attracting qualified households can be challenging. Recognizing that existing participants would likely know other qualified families, the program administrator began offering a $200 reward for any referral that led to an installation. My collaborators and I wondered, though, if there were other ways to make referring more appealing. In a large field experiment, we found that adding a small gift with the referral request and providing a pre-stamped referral slip significantly increased engagement in the referral reward program. The stamped referral slip reduced uncertainty about what referring entailed while also providing a simpler way to refer than visiting a website or calling a toll-free number. The small gift tapped the innate desire to reciprocate acts of kindness–and may have reminded people of the much larger gift they had already received. Together, these two additions to the referral reward led to five times as many new solar installations than reminders of the referral reward alone.

This is a great example of how policy design matters and why relying on economic motives alone may limit the impact of a program.

Do you feel that people understand the underlying issue of why these things are important from an environmental standpoint, or is there still education that needs to be done there?

While education can be helpful, it is rarely sufficient, and sometimes not even necessary. It’s tempting to assume that if people are informed about environmental issues, they will be motivated to act.  This belief aligns with what we call the  information deficit model. It’s an appealing theory of change. However, research shows it’s a poor model for explaining human behavior.

Take, for example, the common New Year’s resolution to eat healthier and exercise regularly. People generally know the importance of those activities and have a general sense of what they should do. But following through is a different matter. Maybe the healthier food options are too expensive, one lacks recipes for cooking healthier meals, or one’s schedule make it challenging to consistently fit exercise in.

There are parallels in the energy space. A lot of people are concerned about climate change and may even have some sense of what they can do to reduce emissions. But investing in energy efficiency upgrades involves numerous steps: researching options, finding qualified contractors, making home modifications, and securing the necessary funds. These requirements can make the process daunting.

That's where policy design comes into play; we have the opportunity to create more supportive programs that simplify the complexity of these decisions. For example, some communities have energy advisers who help homeowners identify the most effective improvements and connect with certified contractors, who in turn, navigate the paperwork required to benefit from available incentives.

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on a project funded by the Department of Energy to examine how rooftop solar might be integrated more efficiently into homes. Most solar installations are retrofits on existing houses. While the hardware costs of the panels have gone down over time, the costs associated with permitting, installation, and marketing have not. At least in theory, installing solar when a house is being constructed has the potential to bring these “soft” costs down: there’s less back and forth with homeowners and installers may be able to streamline the process by working at scale. We just finished a national survey of large-scale home builders to understand whether these assumptions hold up in reality. It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, but we’re learning there may be other barriers that are unique to new construction.

I'm also looking at how we present information about energy consumption and savings for new technologies. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in 2022, has a suite of incentives to help low-income households electrify their homes, but there are still some unanswered questions of how to convey that these technologies can be economically worthwhile. We're designing an online experiment to look at how to intuitively convey this information.

How has the game changed because of recent legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act?

An exciting aspect of the IRA is that it tries to address energy injustice. It recognizes that many past incentives have primarily flowed to wealthier households. It's difficult for lower income households to take advantage of tax credits, for example, as they may not have much tax liability or the capital to cover the upfront cost.

The IRA tries to address these challenges. As part of IRA, the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act provides point-of-sale rebates for household electrification measures – things like heat pumps, induction stoves, and electric panel upgrades. For the lowest income households, these instant rebates can cover up to 100% of the purchase and installation costs, and up to 50% for moderate-income households. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s implemented across states. We know from past research that the way incentives are implemented matters as much, if not more so, than their economic worth.

There’s also a challenge that many of these technologies are relatively new innovations. Many people have likely never heard of a heat pump. Now we have incentives for heat pump clothes dryers, heat pump water heaters, and more. They may be thinking, “the old type worked just fine, why would I get this new kind?” It's an exciting time, but there are challenges with respect to smooth implementation and helping people see how these new technologies can be beneficial.

Across the full breadth of your research, have you noticed any interesting changes or trends in people's behavior?

When I was a grad student 20 years ago, we didn't pay a lot of attention to political ideology when trying to understand people’s environmental attitudes and behavior. Now, you would be hard pressed to find climate research that doesn’t take political ideology into account. Our values and worldviews deeply affect not only what we see as problems, but also what we see as acceptable solutions. Unfortunately, mainstream representations of climate issues tend to align only with liberal viewpoints. That’s a missed opportunity to engage folks on the conservative end of the spectrum.

As I often tell students: people's motivation for caring about an issue does not have to align with your own. There is no single “right” reason to engage. The more we can align policy solutions to meet people’s existing needs and motivations, the more successful they will be.