by Oliver R. Browne, Ludovica Gazze, Michael Greenstone, Olga Rostapshova

Key Takeaways:

  1. Technological advances in remote sensing and real-time monitoring have the potential to dramatically lower the costs and improve the accuracy of environmental enforcement, but political considerations limit take-up.
  2. The Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago partnered with a city in California to evaluate the use of smart meters to target and enforce water restrictions. The project was the first to experimentally study the environmental benefits and political costs of automated monitoring of water use in a real-world enforcement setting.
  3. The new system worked dramatically better than the status quo approach of “water cops” driving around looking for illegal water consumption (e.g., watering lawns on prohibited days). The improved detection and enforcement decreased violations by 17 percent and decreased the number of households in violation by 8 percent per month.
  4. Automated enforcement decreased summer water consumption by 3 percent, and households continued to conserve even after the summer months.
  5. These benefits came with substantial costs to city officials as customer service calls to the city-owned utility identified as complaints and disputes of enforcement actions increased by 1,102 percent. In response to the political backlash to the use of the smart meter data to enforce restrictions, the city decided to terminate the program. as the number of households
  6. The adoption of remote sensing and continuous monitoring technologies to improve environmental enforcement has game-changing potential. But as policymakers adapt aging regulations to incorporate these sources of real-time data, the clear environmental benefits will need to be balanced against possible political costs, e.g., by designing programs that calibrate community expectations.
Areas of Focus: Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.