In households, people use electric energy not directly, but through home appliances. That is, they consume services powered by electricity, such as television, lighting, warming, and cooling. In other words, household electric energy consumption must be studied in terms of electrical appliance use. Most recently, people’s household energy consumption has been steadily increasing and this is a threat to our climate and its change. For example, between 1993 and 2005, with summers growing hotter and homes larger, energy consumed by residential air conditioning in the US alone doubled, and it leaped another 20 per cent by 2010. Similarly, in 2012 about 40 per cent of all electricity consumption in Mumbai city was on account of air conditioning households. The climate impact of air conditioning in the US is now almost half a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. As people’s use of household energy is a prime driver for climate change, reduction of household energy consumption is a much needed step for climate change mitigation.
However, research shows that when purchasing electricity to power electrical appliances in homes, people do not seem to employ rigorous optimisation in their decision-making. In fact, people have very little awareness of the energy efficiency of appliances, the price of the services that appliances produce, or electricity rates. According to a survey done by data company YouGov and Rexel, a majority of adults in the UK have no idea how much money they spend on energy. In the same survey, less than half of those asked knew that boiling a full kettle uses more energy than needed to power a fridge for four hours. In addition, nearly one in three did not realise that more powerful televisions, such as plasma or flat screens, cost more to power than standard TV sets.
Given the lack of awareness and understanding about household energy consumption, promising recent research has shown that improved feedback on electricity consumption is likely to provide an effective tool for customers to better control their consumption and ultimately save energy. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a dynamic climate change simulator (DCCS) game and used it as an intervention to help participants understand basic characteristics of the climate system. The DCCS helped provide feedback to people about their decisions and enabled them to reduce their misconceptions compared with a no-DCCS intervention. Similarly, according to International Energy Agency (IEA), feedback through a number of other methods like meters, displays, or the electric bill was likely to enable people to improve their understanding of their energy consumption.
One important characteristic of feedback is its frequency. It has been found that the more frequent feedbacks are most effective compared with delayed feedbacks. An important aspect of feedback is if it could provide an appliance-specific breakdown as the more closely electricity consumption can be linked to specific appliances and activities, the clearer the relevance of behaviour becomes. It is believed that appliance-specific feedback can help the consumer to detect how a certain appliance or a certain way of using it affects the amount of electricity consumed and the money spent.
Research has shown that the most successful feedback combines the following features: it is given frequently and over a long time, provides an appliance-specific breakdown, is presented in a clear and appealing way, and uses computerised and interactive tools.
Thus, feedback as a behavioural intervention could cause people to improve their understanding of their electricity bills and their household energy consumption. It is believed that enabling this understanding will allow people to better control their consumption and save energy. Furthermore, recent research involving the US city San Marcos has reported that social norms (that is, reporting acceptable or unacceptable behaviours of others) might have a powerful effect on home energy conservation. As part of this research, San Marcos residents were given information about their actual energy use and how it compared to the average energy use in the city (that is, descriptive norm), there was a predictable change in the energy habits: People above the average consumption reduced their energy consumption by a lot. In addition, social approval or disapproval conveyed by emoticons (that is, injunctive norms) moderated people’s behaviour for better: A frown face to above average energy consumers reduced their energy consumption drastically. Thus, policymakers could use descriptive and injunctive social norms as a method of reducing Indian household energy consumption.
Similarly, The Energy Smackdown, a reality television series, recently showcased what citizens of a community can do to reduce their own energy consumption through social norms. In season two, teams of households from three different communities in Massachusetts — Arlington, Cambridge, and Medford —competed to see which community could make the biggest energy reduction over 12 months. The “challenges” included biking to work, weatherising their homes, eating locally grown food, and replacing shower fixtures and light bulbs with eco-friendly alternatives — all simple steps for American people to emulate. In addition, contestants were expected to talk to other community members about reducing carbon emissions. The first-place winners reduced their household consumption of energy by a large 73 per cent. This contest simultaneously tapped into the contestants’ identity within the household, the neighbourhood, and the town and created new “green” social norms for all of the participating towns and possibly for viewers across the US.
So, what’s the bottom line? In summary, both feedback and social norms provide potent behavioural methods that are likely to cause people to conserve electric energy in their households. Given that the problem of climate change needs immediate attention, the use of these behavioural methods is likely to prove helpful for climate change mitigation.
(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute
of Technology, Mandi, India)