This blog is by Micol Salmeri, policy assistant in the low carbon energy theme at Green Alliance.
France is tackling climate change at the local level by exploiting people’s natural competitiveness. For the past eight years, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), in collaboration with local energy agencies (such as Prioriterre), has been using energy saving competitions to encourage people to create ‘Positive Energy Families’. It has had a big impact, with nearly 30,000 families or teams, in 81 of the 101 French départements (counties), taking part since 2008, saving an average of £160 per household.
How competition has been driving behaviour change
Positive Energy Families has two primary goals: to help people achieve energy savings in an effective and playful way and to cut carbon emissions.
To take part, people must form a team of five to ten, regardless of their relationship. All are welcome, whether families, friends or colleagues. The challenge is for each team to achieve energy savings equivalent to a minimum of eight per cent over six winter months (compared to their consumption the previous year). Initially aimed at electricity and buildings’ energy use, the scheme was so successful that some départements quickly broadened the initiative to include water saving and transport emissions reductions.
Teams are encouraged to reach and over achieve their savings targets simply through behavioural changes. They are provided with an ‘eco-guide’ at the start of the six month period, with a choice of around 100 daily actions to save energy, all of these being practically cost free. Their consumption is then measured through meter readings and electricity or gas bills.
Every two months, participants are invited to a get together where they can learn more about energy in general, exchange advice on best ways to achieve savings and compare their scores. Each team is mentored by an ‘energy master’ during the course of the competition.
What was achieved
Over the winter 2014-15, the savings were substantial: households reduced their energy consumption by an average of 12 per cent, which translated into an average saving of £160 (€200) on their usual energy bill. Savings on water use were a point higher over the same timeframe, at 13 per cent. Additionally, over 8.5 million kWh were avoided; equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of just over 2,100 homes.
Besides the emissions reductions, satisfaction levels amongst participants were impressive. More than 80 per cent were pleased to have taken part, and more than 93 per cent did not perceive the eco-guide to be restrictive or constraining. Families said that they had become more aware of how to achieve energy savings, and they enjoyed feeling that they had helped to protect the environment. Many people also stressed social benefits, such as getting to know their neighbours better.
There is, of course, a risk that these benefits could be short-lived, only lasting for the six months that the groups participate in the challenge. But it appears that acquired energy saving behaviours are being transformed into habits. Having reached the end of the competition, many participants decided to go further and invest in energy efficiency improvements, like insulation, switching lightbulbs and installing solar panels or heat pumps, to increase their savings.
Lessons for the UK
Positive Energy Families came out of an EU-wide Energy Neighbourhoods project, launched in 2008, in which the UK also participated with other EU member states. Although a winning team in Gloucestershire achieved average savings of 17 per cent, in both the EU-wide challenges the UK ranked amongst the least performing countries. Since then, only a few sporadic initiatives like the York and North Yorkshire Green Neighbourhood Challenge have emerged.
So, why hasn’t the UK managed to sustain more widespread engagement via competition to save energy?
Intelligent Energy – Europe found that the main success factor was the engagement of public authorities, cities and municipalities. This has been demonstrated in France, where ADEME and Prioriterre have backed the competition for eight years in a row. The former UK co-ordinator for the EU project, Severn Wye Energy Agency, has put poor UK engagement down to the lack of available funds from local authorities, a limited number of agencies to co-ordinate the challenge, as well as diverging levels of community engagement across the UK, with Wales showing greater cohesion than England.
Nevertheless, the idea has great potential considering the average British person is responsible for producing at least 12.5 tonnes of CO2 a year. Moreover, if we could achieve the same level of savings in the UK in just six months, ie 8.5 million kWh or 3,000 tonnes of CO2, it would be the equivalent of taking 388 cars off the road for a year.
Following the promises we made at Paris last December, local government, in partnership with energy agencies and NGOs, should consider following France’s example and be looking for new ways to engage people in cutting carbon emissions to meet the targets and tackle climate change. Making it fun, competitive and rewarding seems a good way to do it.
Photo credit: EIE Pays de la Loire