Can wine, quizzes and advice help reduce people’s energy use?

Roundtable Puzzle Solving TeamThis is a guest post by Graham Smith, professor of politics at the University of Westminster, and principal investigator of a project on community-based initiatives for energy saving

It’s a widely held assumption on the part of policy-makers and activists that community engagement will lead to improved domestic energy saving. But does this assumption hold water? A three-and-a-half year research project funded under the UK Research Council’s (RCUK) Energy and Communities Programme, involving academics from the Universities of Southampton, Reading and Westminster, is testing this assumption through an innovative field experiment.

The experiment
We have signed up 175 households across two similar communities that then received cavity wall and loft insulation and agreed to let us monitor their energy use and broader consumption patterns. In the treatment group, the insulation has been delivered as part of an ongoing community project promoting low-carbon lifestyles; there is no such community project in the control group. By monitoring the energy use of the households we are in a position to analyse whether community engagement had any significant impact on net energy savings. A second strand of research offers a comparative dimension: we are comparing the experimental results with the activities and impact of a wider range of community initiatives focused on domestic energy reduction across the UK.

Establishing such an innovative experiment has been challenging and time-consuming, way beyond anything that any of us expected. We have worked with partners in the private sector and community activists, for whom ensuring experimental conditions is (quite reasonably) not one of their priorities! And a major challenge has been the scale of the data collection: with the monitoring equipment feeding data at 2 minute intervals from around 5 sensors in each house, that’s close to 7 billion readings per year…

But now we are on top of the data and have undertaken a series of interviews with households and some interesting findings are beginning to emerge. What we report here is only tentative and indicative – we will blog again when we have confirmed results. But they do make interesting reading for both policy-makers and activists.

Even one-off workshops seem to have an effect
In November last year (2011), the local community group in our treatment area ran its first event for householders. During the 2-hour workshop, householders were given information on how best to use the monitoring equipment in their homes, worked in groups on a couple of quizzes on the energy consumption of different activities and had the opportunity to share a glass of wine with other householders. We have been able to compare the energy use of householders who attended against those who did not take up the invitation or were in the control group. Our initial analysis indicates that amongst those who took part, overall electricity use and lounge temperatures (related to gas use) were significantly lower following the event. This suggests that even small-scale events can have an impact on energy use behaviours. We are checking that these findings are robust and that they hold over time. We’ll report back with more details, but it will be a significant finding if the results hold.

Insulated homes don’t perform as expected
We have noticed that during cold weather, the heating system in a number of households (measured by lounge sensor) is not reaching a stable thermostatic set point temperature. A significant number of houses are performing below their theoretical thermal performance (U value). There are a number of explanations for this, but it is a potentially problematic finding for the Green Deal where it is assumed that households that have been insulated will perform to a high thermal standard. While this is not a key research question for the team, it is highly policy relevant and so we are collecting more data during this heating season to ensure robust analysis. Again, we will report further findings as they emerge.

Saving money vs saving the planet
We have interviewed a number of the households in both treatment and control groups and have come to realize that a number of participants in the project have developed what we are calling ‘energy-saving practices’. For most people, energy is not much of a direct concern – rather it is something that they use while going about their daily lives. But some of our householders are motivated to think explicitly about their energy use.

We have noticed some interesting differences though between at least two different motivations behind these energy-saving practices. For some it is concern about climate change that is key; for others a financial imperative. And ‘saving the planet’ or ‘saving money’ appears to have a differential impact on their wider lifestyles. Those motivated by climate change appear to be willing to make more significant changes in other consumption practices (the food they eat; the way they get around; etc.). Those for whom cost is the main consideration are primarily interested in whether a change saves them money. This appears to chime with work coming out of social psychology that suggests we need to focus on people’s values if we want to see large-scale change in lifestyles.

At this point these findings need to be taken with a pinch of salt as they are early and indicative. We will blog again as results are firmed up.

7 comments

  • Hello Prof. Smith,
    interesting research, thank you for sharing.
    When you say “Even one-off workshops seem to have an effect” – I assume you will also be looking at the fact whether those not attending ‘couldn’t be bothered’ and could be people just not as motivated (to save energy) compared to those attending, (ie those without energy-saving practices), rather than (all of reported) energy being saved as a result of the workshop/community contact etc? Do you also have data before measures were installed? ( ie bills and internal temperatures?)
    Looking forward to the final research findings,
    Sofie Pelsmakers

    • Thanks for the comment Sophie. In response to your first question – we are checking the data we have on participants’ attitudes to see if there is any correlation with attendance. Thanks for the reminder though!
      And in terms of data, we do have readings on internal temperatures, gas and electricity consumption (and other aspects of consumption, attitudes and social networks) for almost all the households before insulation was installed. It’s a very rich data set that will allow for powerful analysis of the impact of community interventions.

  • Interested to learn more about this research and level of intervention. Are you going to continue to monitor the treatment group after intervention from community groups? Previous research in this area seems to suggest that there is fall off after the intervention period – would be interesting to see if this research concurs. Also interested in the individual’s saving money – again previous research in this area suggests that money saved on energy is often then spent on other damaging environmental impacts.

    • Hi Kate. The project is monitoring the households over three heating seasons, so we have data before and after different community interventions. One of our interests is whether there is a decay after interventions – it is something we are analysing for the first community event right now and we’ll report the results as soon as possible. And your second observation also resonates with our research interests. We are collecting data on broader household consumption (food, travel, shopping, etc.) through three surveys per year and hope to be able to track any ‘rebound effect’.

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  • Hi Graham,
    Fascinating results, and your ‘even one-off workshops make a difference’ comment chimes with our research experience, where we found that face-to-face discussion about energy-saving among peers was a low-cost, low-tech way of getting people to change their energy-related practices – as well as increasing people’s overall confidence in themselves as active citizens. Check out our Reducing Energy Consumption Through Community Knowledge Networks (RECCKN) website here: http://www.recckn.org.uk.

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