While there are many amazing advances in technology which will help society reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, actually getting individuals to utilize this technology is a different matter entirely. We are all well aware of the necessity of us reducing our energy use in order to minimize the negative impact of climate change.
However, many of us (myself included) often lack the motivation to fully commit to environmental practices. We know we should theoretically separate the rubbish and the recycling but sometimes it’s just quicker to shove it all in one bin bag. It is important to consider the behavioural element of sustainability – you can make the most innovative renewable energy resource possible but if it’s not widely utilised its impact will be limited. Getting individuals to change their behaviour is just as important, if not more important, than renewable energy technology.
There are a range of small actions that if individuals participated in, could result in less energy use and money saved. For instance, a study by the Energy Saving Trust found that electrical devices being left on standby makes up 9- 16% of the average electricity bill (costing the individual roughly £86). Despite there being a general awareness that reducing your energy will result in less expenditure, there are still individuals who make little or no effort to reduce their energy consumption. So, what’s the best way to get people to engage with the issue and actually change their actions?
What makes people want to change?
A recent TED talk by Alex Laskey revealed some interesting insights on this topic. Laskey described a study conducted 10 years ago – leaflets were distributed one summer asking individuals to switch from using air conditioning to fans. The different leaflets sighted different reasons for asking people to change their behaviour. The leaflets which told individuals to change in order to save the planet or to save money or to be a good citizen did not make individuals act differently. However, when the leaflets informed people that their neighbours were being more energy efficient than they were; this resulted in a marked decrease in their energy use.
This simple idea has fuelled Opower, Laskey’s company, which researches utility use around the world and tries to understand what makes individuals engage with energy efficient behaviours. Part of their research has revealed certain aspects about energy consumer’s behaviours which hold true across cultures. One of these is that everyone wants to know how they measure up to others in terms of energy use. Opower work with utility companies and provide consumers with personalised energy reports where their energy use compared to that of neighbours with similar sized homes and targeted recommendations for reducing energy use are provided.
What information can help people change?
If you convince individuals that they do want to alter their energy consumption habits there is another key step to behaviour change – providing the relevant information so they know what to change. Whilst Opower talks about energy use from the perspective of utility bills, the underlying principles can easily be applied to energy saving behaviour in general.
A great way to see where heat is being lost in a particular home is to use thermal imaging cameras. Once this information has been gleaned, individuals can insulate their homes in the most effective way (e.g. if it turns out a large amount of heat is lost through the windows in your house, it might be worth considering triple or double glazing). Furthermore you can get devices that help individuals monitor their energy use – which can help people adjust their energy use behaviours according to energy usage readings. Increasing awareness of where energy is being used and lost will better equip individuals to improve their energy usage.