home energy report behavior energy efficiency

Wondering how you can influence behavior to reduce energy usage among businesses as well as residents?

Over the last decade, energy efficiency programs—faced with aggressive goals and fewer easy wins relative to technology—began seeking to change participant behaviors, especially at the household level. One strategy—home energy reports—dominated the program design. Home energy reports feature a model where participants receive feedback on how their energy usage compares to other homes—leveraging social norms. There is now plenty of research proving that households will reduce their energy usage if they learn that their consumption is higher than other peer households.

However, one of the challenges with the home energy report model, is that while we know that households reduce their usage, we don’t know how they reduced their usage, or for how long those reductions will persist.

But when it comes to behavior and energy efficiency programs, it is important to understand that home energy reports are just one way to influence behaviors; there are numerous other ways that programs—aimed at businesses as well as individuals—can influence behaviors.

It’s All About Behavior

When it comes to strategies for reducing energy usage, participating in most energy efficiency program requires a series of behaviors; from logging into the utility website to learn more, to identifying a contractor, and finally to implementation. It’s noteworthy that the most significant savings often come from programs where there are a series of behaviors required—first information seeking behaviors and then behaviors which act on that information. That means sustainability and energy efficiency professionals can apply insights from behavioral science to their programs at multiple decision points, always with the aim of maximizing participation rates so that more people continue progress towards reducing their energy usage.

Energy efficiency program managers should think of behavioral science as a set of tools they can use to hone their program design. It’s not just about influencing people to turn off lights, it’s also about influencing people to benchmark their facilities, to look for the Energy Star label, etc.

Using behavioral insights effectively means going beyond intuition—what you think will work—to what research tells us will work. These are exciting times to be working in behavior. Neuroscience is giving us amazing insights into how our brains really work. And neuroscience tells us—pretty clearly—that humans feel, do, and then think. Even though we believe we’re rational creatures, science says otherwise. We act based on feelings and then rationalize those actions afterwards—often in just a few milliseconds.

This finding has important implications for the energy efficiency industry. It suggests efficiency programs are better informed by experiments than by interviewing past or potential participants. People can’t accurately explain why they did what they did, or what they will do in the future—that’s just not how our brains work. That means it’s better to launch real-world experiments to see if people respond to a message versus asking them questions that they really can’t answer accurately. Energy efficiency program designers need to follow the lead of private industry and monitor actual patterns of behavior, rather than relying on survey instruments to inform program design.

Energy Efficiency Programs: Make It Easy

There are a few fundamental rules that apply to all energy efficiency program design, and the first is to make it easy for potential participants to partake. If you want people to buy energy efficient appliances, make sure those appliances are available in local stores, easy to find, labeled appropriately, etc. The “make it easy” mantra can seem obvious, yet many programs still erect unnecessary barriers, making it very difficult to do the right things.

One way to ensure ease is to make the right choice the default choice. On a variety of issues, from organ donation to retirement savings, we’ve seen that most people will follow the default. This means if you make being energy efficient the default option, you’ll get more participation. In a store setting, that might mean that the LED light bulbs are at eye-level so that they are the first thing a customer sees. Or for furnaces, it means getting contractors to lead with the high efficiency option. On the business side, a great example is purchasing standards; if a business establishes protocols (e.g., “we always purchase high efficiency motors”) then on-floor decisions are easier and the right choice is expedited.

It’s also important to avoid choice overload. A lot of options sounds good, but in reality people do better with fewer options. Too many choices can feel overwhelming and lead to inaction. So providing customers with a list of 50 possible contractors is insane—who has time to check the specifics on 50 contractors? It’s much better if you split the list up and give each customer just 5 contractor options. Similarly, a list of 100 things I can do to save energy is, well, exhausting. Just tell me the three to five things I should do now; you can offer more advice later, in another right-sized piece.

When programs make it hard to participate, people defer action, which means lost opportunities for savings. Every efficiency program should have protocols for measuring losses in their opportunity funnel. And if there’s a spot where you lose a lot of customers—if people don’t convert from one step to the next—your first task is to look for ways you might be making it hard to participate.

Leverage Social Norms

Humans are social creatures and our practices are strongly influenced by our peers. Indeed, home energy reports illustrate this phenomenon—we shift our behaviors when we learn that our home’s energy usage is out of line with similar households.

There are lots of other opportunities to leverage the fact that we care what others think about us.

You can message about how many customers are doing X or Y. For example, “More than 100 businesses in our community have already installed LED lighting.” These messages work because people don’t want to be left behind.

Avoid creating negative norms that undermine your program. For example, never say, “Everyone is wasting energy,” because then you are normalizing waste—if everyone is doing this, it must be ok. This is a hard one for many efficiency programs because showcasing all the opportunities to save seems like a good idea. Except it’s not a good idea because it doesn’t motivate action—instead it motivates inaction.

Instead, you can recognize market leaders by giving awards to companies that achieve specific savings levels, or that help numerous customers achieve energy savings, etc. If you want architects to design more high performance buildings, then give awards to the firms that do. Similarly, recognize cities that lead by example, and showcase customers who achieve deep savings.

Recognition is effective in two ways:

  • First, it reinforces the behaviors you want in the entity you are recognizing. Humans value consistency, so when you recognize me as a leader in energy efficiency, I feel some obligation to live up to that recognition—to demonstrate that I deserved the award.
  • Second, it inspires others to emulate the awardee’s practices. When you recognize one city, the leaders in another set goals to ensure that they are recognized next. Ditto with businesses and individuals. Recognizing achievement inspires others to achieve as well.

Testimonials can generate a similar effect. When you feature testimonials from prominent citizens or businesses, you reinforce the practices of those entities, while inspiring others to emulate those practices. People are social—we follow cues from those around us. Smart efficiency program managers leverage those cues!

Another variation on this is pledges or commitments. Many programs encourage people to sign on to a pledge to reduce their energy consumption. But too often these pledges are anonymous, and anonymity is not effective. If you want me to keep a commitment, make it public. Ask me to go on the record promising to use less energy and then I’ll feel accountable. If I’m not willing to share my name then I’m probably not really serious about the commitment. So stop wasting your time and mine with those anonymous pledges.

Here’s one more angle on consistency: leveraging past participation in one program to encourage participation in other programs. Again, humans value consistency—I don’t want people to think I’m a flip-flopper. Programs would be wise to target their communications—to let customers know that homeowners like them—people who installed smart thermostats, for example, have also explored opportunities to upgrade their insulation. Let the target know that you know they’re special, and then give them a path to reinforce that identity. For example, “Builders who deliver high performance homes are often interested in integrating renewable energy into their homes.”

And there’s more!

A few other strategies merit quick mention here. First, we care more deeply about losses than gains. The pain I feel at losing $10 is equivalent to the joy of finding $100—which means programs would be wise to talk about the money I’m wasting rather than the money I can save. I personally like using images of burning money…the loss image is pretty strong there!

People are also motivated by the potential for scarcity, so special limited-time offers are effective. Encourage customers to “act now” by offering a bonus incentive for a limited time. Deadlines can be a great antidote to procrastination.

Finally, make saving energy fun. It’s really not that hard. When people do good things, cheer for them—they will like that. Inject a little humor into your communications. Talk about comfort and health benefits so customers can see how energy efficiency contributes to people, planet, and profits. Never forget that in the end it’s all about people and we’re social creatures. We like fun, social, and easy. We want to do the right things if only efficiency programs help us along the way.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about how behavioral insights could maximize the results from your efficiency efforts. You can also watch a webinar recording on this topic for more information.

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