Who Says You Can’t Change People’s Energy Behavior?

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Just a few years ago the idea of changing energy behavior was viewed as quirky. The thinking was: Forget it, people ignore energy, they’re not going to remember to shut off the lights no matter how much you cajole, flatter or worry them.

But companies like Opower, and a growing number of energy behaviorists, are figuring out the psychology behind our energy choices. And they are making energy behavior programs — dare I say? — mainstream.

How do you motivate people to save energy? It’s an act of the heart not the head, according to a recent report out of Europe.

Opower last week released numbers that back the notion that behavioral energy is winning converts. Notoriously slow-to-innovate utilities are adopting energy behavior programs and the initiatives are making a dent in energy consumption. Opower’s technology platform, alone, is now used by nearly 100 utilities worldwide, and has saved over 8 TWh. To put that in perspective, Opower says 8 TWh equates to:

  • Over $1 billion in bill savings for utility customers
  • Taking more than 1.1 million cars off the road for a year
  • The energy needed to power all the homes in New Mexico or Rome for a year

In the last year alone, Opower and partners have saved 3 TWh by changing energy behavior — more than twice as much energy as America’s largest residential solar company produced over the same time.

Not surprising, some of the biggest results are coming from Pacific Gas & Electric, Commonwealth Edison and National Grid — utilities often at the forefront of energy efficiency.

Energy behavioral programs offer benefits beyond saving energy — they give utilities a chance to provide new services and gain a competitive edge. Opower points to utility giant E.ON, which has signed up more than one million U.K. customers under one of its programs. Opower says that E.ON’s success is a testament to how UK utilities are prioritizing customer service to compete in a flatter marketplace. In the U.S., such services could help utilities differentiate themselves as they face increased competition from solar and other distributed energy resources.


So how do you motivate people to save energy? It’s an act of the heart not the head, according to a recent report out of Europe.

Planning for Energy Efficient Cities (PLEEC) – funded by the EU Seventh Framework Program — looks at 38 behavioral strategies used in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the UK, the Netherlands, Estonia, Bulgaria and Spain.

Unfortunately, most energy behavioral programs are cognitive; they are based on the premise that if we understand energy we’ll use it more wisely. But educating people only goes so far.

“Providing information may somewhat influence attitudes but it will rarely, alone, have lasting effects on behavior,” the report says.

Instead, the paper advises more focus on personal values and experiences, which lead to empowerment – “the concept of how much influence and meaning our personal choices have in a wider context.”

The message has to be “clear, simple, touching and engaging.” And it needs to be something that feeds into our craving for meaning, the sense that we are doing something that really matters.

The PLEEC report, which includes several case studies, is here.

Have some thoughts on this article?  Post below or on our LinkedIn Group, Energy Efficiency Markets.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


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