Energy Conservation on the Household Level

What role do households play in energy consumption and conservation?

Households are an important target group for energy conservation efforts, as 15% to 20% of the total energy requirements in most countries with a high income and high human development indexes (i.e. OECD countries) are from household energy consumption. Within households, heating and cooling are the primary uses of electricity in the U.S. while computers, television, and lighting combined account for only about 15% of electricity use. Price-based energy conservation approaches, such as cap-and-trade or carbon tax systems, rely on creating financial incentives for energy conservation and have received a lot of attention in recent years. However, non-price energy conservation strategies are an emerging and promising way of encouraging energy conservation in households through slight changes in behaviors. These strategies, which are informed by behavioral sciences and social psychology, may be less expensive and less controversial than price-based strategies. Overall, these strategies tackle the current barriers to energy conservation, namely lack of knowledge around effective ways to reduce energy consumption, the low priority and high cost of saving energy, and the lack of feasible alternatives at the household level.

What factors influence a household’s decisions when it comes to using and saving energy?

To begin, it’s important to understand the different factors that influence a household’s decisions when it comes to consuming and saving energy. Identifying these factors, which can be both external and internal, can help us understand the potential pathways through which interventions can impact energy consumption. First, external factors such as household income level and energy price influence a household’s ability to adopt certain energy conservation behaviors over others. More precisely, household energy consumption increases non-linearly with income. To conserve energy, high income households tend to invest more in energy conservation technologies while low-income families tend to change their behavior to save energy.Households are also less likely to reduce their energy use if the behavioral costs are high in terms of money, effort, or convenience.

Second, internal factors such as attitudes, beliefs, and psychology also shape the decisions a household makes when it comes to saving energy. Psychological and social theories can help understand the conditions leading to sustained practices of energy conservation. According to the theory of planned behavior, the direct determinants of an individual’s behavior are behavioral intention, subjective norms, and the level of control that individuals feel when they practice specific behaviors. Consequently, improving our understanding of human psychology is crucial to promoting energy conservation, especially when external policy incentives are lacking. Then, according to the value-belief-norm model, beliefs and norms explain the formation of environmentally friendly behavior among individuals. In other words, the adoption of energy conservation strategies depends on the synergy or conflict between people’s goals and behaviors. Consequently, people’s goals should conflict the least to promote energy conservation.

Finally, there is currently a general lack of knowledge among household members surrounding energy use related to behavior, such as the false belief that small appliances consume less than big ones. Such gaps in knowledge can hinder energy conservation within households.

What strategies can be used to reduce the energy consumed by households?

There are various energy-conservation strategies that can be applied at the household level to change energy consumption behaviors. First, energy conservation can be promoted by changing the structures and contextual factors in which decisions related to energy use are made, such as by providing subsidies, improving communication between energy providers and consumers, or making energy waste more expensive. For example, energy conservation can be facilitated by increasing the availability and affordability of energy-efficient appliances, as long as they meet the important needs, wants, and preferences of household members. There is however a possibility of a rebound effect, meaning households may use appliances more often because they are energy efficient. Similarly, changes in policies and legal measures can also shift energy consumption behaviors. Energy conservation policies are more likely to be accepted when they increase rather than decrease freedom of choice, are perceived as fair and efficient, target efficient behavior rather than curtailment behavior, and are aimed at reducing household energy consumption rather than transportation-related energy use. Policy interventions are more likely to last if the social and structural contexts in which households make decisions surrounding energy use are already encouraging of energy conservation.

Second, energy conservation can be promoted by changing the moral and social context in which decisions related to energy use are made. Sustainable energy consumption is influenced by personal values, with altruistic and environmental values being as important as external factors such as income in influencing energy conservation behaviors. As a result, conservation interventions should focus on amending hedonic and gain goals while solidifying normative goals of energy conservation. Increasing the importance of energy conservation and forming an environmentally conscious atmosphere can transform energy conservation into a social norm. This new norm can then be internalized as a personal norm through for instance incentives, energy-saving publicity, education, rewarding energy saving, and the overall creation of convenient energy-saving environments such as improved public transit. Since personal values don’t always translate into actual energy conservation behavior, it is crucial to create social norms and an overall atmosphere that promotes conservation rather than just relying on people’s personal ethics.

Finally, providing tailored information and advice to households can help encourage the implementation of energy-conserving behaviors. Informational strategies are especially effective when pro-environmental behavior is relatively convenient and not very costly in terms of money, time, effort or social disapproval, and when individuals do not face severe constraints on behavior. The most successful information strategies include prompts, individualized social marketing (where information is tailored based on the needs, wants, and perceived barriers of consumer groups), commitment strategies, implementation intentions, and modeling and providing information about others’ behaviors. Tailored information is also more efficient at changing behaviors than general information targeting a broad public. Nevertheless, despite a rise in knowledge and concern about environmental issues, energy consumption has been rising, reflecting the fact that people’s actions are not always aligned with their concerns and that energy conservation is attributed a low priority.

What’s the main takeaway?

Households are a promising target group for energy conservation efforts, as they account for a large proportion of energy demand and can easily be encouraged to reduce their energy use through a range of inexpensive strategies such as influencing social norms and providing tailored information and advice about energy conservation. Energy conservation strategies can aim to change the structures and contexts in which decisions are made, such as through changes in available products, services, infrastructure, policies, pricing, and legal measures. Strategies to promote household energy conservation can also be psychological, such as by changing the knowledge, perceptions, motivations, cognition, or norms related to energy use through information, education and modeling.

Written by Gwen Aubrac


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