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Negawatts: The Positive Psychology Behind Negative Energy

Negawatts: The Positive Psychology Behind Negative EnergyAlmost every way we make electricity today, except for the emerging renewables and nuclear puts out CO2. And so, what we’re going to have to do at a global scale, is create a new system. And so, we need energy miracles.
~Bill Gates

A typographical error led Amory Lovins to coin the phrase negawatts. In a brilliant 1989 keynote address to the Green Energy Conference in Montreal he outlined what has become the blueprint for a radical business and energy concept.

Pay people to do nothing.

Twenty-plus years later the idea is deeply taking hold.

Fast-forward to Dr. Ron Denbo who was recently featured on a TED global ideas project. He is the Founder and CEO of Zerofootprint, an international company that provides software to measure and manage carbon footprint.  Individuals, governments and corporations can use these services to reduce the amount of CO2 they generate.

The rising amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is what has been causing global warming. It results in changing weather patterns (such as more frequent heatwaves and downpours), which threatens Earth’s stability and eventually makes it uninhabitable.

Dr. Denbo has a central mission for his company  — to assist employees and citizens worldwide in combating climate change. His premise is simple:

“If we needed one more watt in this country, what would we do?  We could build a new power plant, or we could save that watt.  Which is cheaper?”

Proof Positive

His point is that if we can accurately measure energy use, we can help save energy and change people’s behavior patterns for the better. If you measure and pay people for the watts they don’t use, it can offset the watts they do use.

The concept has become a reality for larger companies, but it is working its way down to individuals — new, accurate ways to measure and compare energy use have been developed.  Once a typical usage baseline is established, the software Dr. Denbo has developed could measure what is being saved.

“You could put anything you want into an electrical outlet,” said Dr. Denbo at the forum. “There is no regulation on the efficiency, frivolity or value of what you plug in.  (The power companies) have to supply that electricity.

The Color of Money?

This idea of Negawatts seems to turn consumerism on its head, but it is a model for efficiency and actually may create a market for power companies.  There is even talk of a Negawatt energy market where energy would be sold like a commodity such as silver or copper. Since the cheapest watt is the one that’s never created, power companies could sell their unused power to communities in need at a discount:  Everyone is happy.

While there is no wide-scale rating scheme as yet for enticing the markets into the Negawatt idea, there have been some successful efforts at extending the idea beyond efficiency.  In one community, homes were rated for a green factor, then the rate of loans fluctuated depending on how much energy was saved.  One bank has been able to offer a half-point off homeowners’ mortgages if they were deemed green. This is not unlike how auto insurers set the cost of insurance.  The better driver you are, the lower your insurance rates; the more careless, the higher.

Which brings us to mindfulness.

You would be hard-pressed to look at the field of positive psychology and not see mindfulness, staying focused in the now, as a staple in becoming happier.  By offering incentives to think about your wattage use we are making energy consumption a mindfulness project.  I doubt Eckhart Tolle had it in mind, but his bestselling book, The Power of Now, takes on a deeper meaning when you realize the concept behind negawatts:  We do, literally, have more (electrical) power when we are mindful of its use.

At the heart of positive psychology is Self-Determination Theory (SDT): understanding the source of our motivations.  In the 1970s researchers Ryan and Deci proposed that three innate needs — competence, autonomy and relatedness — are essential to our well-being and psychological health. They are considered to be intrinsic motivation (the source of this drive is inside us).

Pursuing goals for external incentives — such as taking a job you hate just for the money — defines extrinsic motivation.  This type of motivation is common, but less directly associated to fulfilling our sense of well-being.

The Negawatt revolution straddles the shift between external and internal motivation, through a process Deci and Ryan called internalization. Negawatt theory is a direct attempt to transform an extrinsically motivated behavior (energy conservation) into an internally valued need (becoming energy-conscious.)  If we look at SDT we see that rewarding people to use power conservatively has the potential to empower them.  Knowing they can regulate wattage use on their own (autonomy) to both save and make money (enhancing their competence) for the betterment of others (community relatedness) strikes the chord Ryan and Deci meant by internalization.  Consider how the work of Nobel Prize winner Al Gore motivated people around the world.  We became conscious of the deleterious results of the greenhouse effect (extrinsic motivation) and have changed our intrinsic behavior accordingly (and buy compact fluorescent bulbs as an autonomous act of commonality).

(As a side note I propose any day that has an abnormality related to global warming, such as a record-breaking heat index, or rainfall, be dubbed an Al Gore-geous day – it is just a suggestion.)

In the case of Negawatts, the external motivator and incentive is to be paid for doing nothing.  Critics see this as ludicrous — getting paid for doing nothing with a commodity you don’t own — but the truth is it is not nothing.  It is mindfulness in the service of efficiency. In California they have rolling blackouts because of excessive energy demands. In India major cities have nearly daily blackouts because of lack of power. If we were able to reduce or eliminate blackouts because people are rewarded for not using power this becomes a proactive, voluntary act leading to greater community productivity and well-being.   It isn’t doing nothing: It is consciously, mindfully making decisions for the betterment of yourself and others.

Negawatts also reduces the need for dependency on oil while simultaneously reducing the aforementioned greenhouse gases, CO2.

Changing our behavior for the better is something others are working on as well.  For a novel approach check out fun theory, a concept being proposed by Volkswagen.

The ultimate question is: Will this work?  Can we help people become more mindful of their energy consumption?  I personally believe it’s possible, but somehow it brings an old joke to mind.

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

Just one.

But the light bulb has to want to change.

Negawatts: The Positive Psychology Behind Negative Energy

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Negawatts: The Positive Psychology Behind Negative Energy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Aug 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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