What do we know about how people think of energy?

December 7, 2015

INational Energy Study 2, behavioural motivators in saving energy and energy use in the homesn the first eight months of 2015, Sustainable Homes carried out meter readings on over 500 homes across the country as part of the National Energy Study 2 to find out more about energy use in the home, and to answer some of the questions raised during the first National Energy Study. This series of blogs looks at the key findings and some of the issues raised.

This is Sustainable Homes’ second National Energy Study, undertaken with data from 520 homes from 13 housing associations during the first six months of 2015. It builds on the findings of the first study a year earlier.

In the first study we looked primarily at behavioural motivators in saving energy, with our findings suggesting that:

  • Homes with higher SAP values were not reducing residents energy costs as much as might be anticipated.
  • Some residents who experienced difficulties with their bills were not necessarily those on the lowest incomes.
  • Even on the lowest incomes, more than half did not consider themselves to be having difficulty with bills.
  • The lowest income groups and also those experiencing the most difficulties were spending more on their energy than others.
  • Those who displayed the least understanding of their heating systems tended to be the highest users.
  • Housing associations are the most trusted source of advice for their residents on helping them to achieve energy savings.

This report looks at some of the key findings from the second National Energy Study (NES2), but a more in-depth report due in January 2016 will delve into the full results in detail.

It is clear that our energy use is considerably more deeply ingrained than a simple financial expense, for many reasons:

  • People don’t set out to use energy. It just happens to be expended in everything we do. If we bake a cake, or drive to the next town, then we only use as much energy as we need to do this. We don’t consider ourselves to be wasteful, we are just living our lives.
  • “It’s my home, why can’t I be warm in it?” A person’s comfort level, and the degree to which they aim to provide comfort and protection for their families is a much greater concern to them than the financial cost of achieving this. Feelings of warmth are closely linked with feelings of security, and for this reason people can be quite protective against being told how warm they should have their homes. The common advice ‘turn your thermostat down by one degree’ has become ineffective, because people just turn it up again.
  • “I only use as much energy as I need to.” For a person to recognise where savings can be made, there needs to be some understanding of a) what is normal usage, and b) which appliances are the most significant energy users. In order to do that, measurement of energy needs to be better understood.
  • “I can’t understand my energy bill.” The standard unit of energy use is the kilowatt-hour (kWh), and while an energy bill contains all the information needed to interpret their energy use, a significant majority have difficulties with this. To many people a kWh is not a tangible unit, and the unit that is much better understood is the £ sign in the bottom right hand corner.
  • “It’s not the energy bill I can’t afford, it’s the double glazing” If double glazing will save £200 per year, but costs £4000 to install, then one isn’t saving money any more – not for 20 years, anyway. So the cost arguments for saving energy don’t always stack up, and other motivators need to be found.
  • Behaviour change is rarely cost-driven. Habits almost always override finances. People who have addictions to smoking, alcohol, gambling or shopping continue with these addictions despite increases in price. There may be some awareness that their finances would improve if they abandoned these practices, or even cut down – but the practices are so ingrained that even cutting down can prove difficult.

However, habits are not limited to harmful addictions, and while one might aspire to having lower energy bills, a unit of electricity is, in itself, not cost-prohibitive. If five hours of television costs just 15 pence, then even with a few cups of tea and a hot meal, that is still a cheap evening in. The home heating system tends to incur more expense, but either:

  • if the resident knows how to control it, this is normally done with comfort, rather than cost in mind. Or;
  • the system is automated using a thermostat and timer and so the home heating ‘just happens’ without the resident having given a thought to the cost.

Changes to established behaviour need different motivators. We act with regard to people or issues that we care for. Money is given to charities, time is donated to good causes, some people may fast for a period of time for religious reasons, in other words acting for the greater good, or ‘intrinsic’ reasons.

On the other hand, New Year resolutions, which are normally driven out of selfinterest (or ‘extrinsic’ reasons) – rarely last beyond the end of January. Aspirations to cut down on energy use – to watch less TV, have fewer cups of tea, shorter showers – are more likely to succeed out of a ‘charitable’ desire to protect the environment than purely on cost grounds. This is because modern living is designed for us to have what we want, when we want, and our comfort levels have become accustomed to this.

We are always interested to hear your thoughts, so do leave a comment below.

To read the full report, click here.

To download the NES 1 report, click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

For Part 1 of this blog series, click here.

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Daniel Navarro