Nudging Energy Behavior - Barış Sanlı

Energy efficiency is always preferable energy fuel. From negawatts to low hanging fruit, lots of tags are attached to it. On a macro level, energy efficiency can happen by either technological improvement or behavior change. As we talk more about the smartness of our energy system and digitalization, we have to understand the human instinct that interacts with the smart-digital system. Can these systems nudge the user for a more energy-efficient realm?

Nudging energy behavior is not a new thing, during the 70s and 80s, there were lots of advertisements, government programs for energy efficiency. However, we are coming to a dark reality about behavior change, does the consumer only react to price hikes?

During 2007, I was part of the project to explore sustainability options for energy policies. The project group was composed of well educated, activist, informed sector professionals. One of the transition during that period was switching from the light bulb to CFL (compact fluorescent lamps). I tried it myself and changed all my bulbs with CFL and reported the decrease in my bill. Some people from the group didn’t concur with me and emphasized the adverse health effects of CFLs. Some also correctly mentioned how some cheap CFLs could be harmful to the grid through harmonic generation.

While walking back home, it was easy to spot houses with bulbs and CFLs, since bulbs produce a yellowish light and CFLs blue-white. A big CFL manufacturer also produced pamphlets and was distributing those in the biggest supermarkets to inform customers. But the lights from the houses were still yellow. After price hikes, this all changed.

Suddenly white light was victorious. The health hazards are forgotten, and the good old eye-friendly yellow incandescent light is damned. Today in most of the shops, you can not even find a yellow LED light because the customer prefers white light to be yellow, contrary to the social hesitation against white light 13 years ago.

There may be lots of reasons for the change. The availability, quality, design, price, and unavailability of incandescent light are all factors. But the shift is interesting.

Today consumers are more environmentally conscious. However, cars are getting bigger and bigger. In a diesel country like Turkey, environmental groups didn’t mention diesel scandal once. The ecologically conscious consumers didn’t bother it as well. Despite substantial technological improvements, smart houses are not the norm but still testbeds in terms of energy consumption.

Therefore we have to be very careful about revealed and declared preferences of consumers. There are environmentally conscious consumers, but the services for them may not be available. There may be millions of energy efficiency savvy people, but their preferences are hardly known.

Why a social media technology or platform like Facebook was used to manipulate the elections but not increase energy efficiency? That is probably because of the nature of the information. The information does not convey the truth most of the time. In recent times, information is much more about opinion than facts. So what is the public opinion on energy efficiency? “Good,” and that is it.

What is the way forward? A combination of smart technologies, social media, new forms of media, and behavioral methods can be a good starting point. The first step should be to dissect consumer groups according to their revealed preferences, not declared ones. The second step is to design the services and make them accessible to these groups. However, to nudge the groups to the services, facts generally do not matter. That is very unfortunate, but opinion matters more. Data and facts are always relevant, but truth decay is a reality.

When opinions are essential, what the person believes in or identity becomes critical. For example, in a smart home experiment in the UK, males tend to use these technologies better than female members. That irritates the female members since the complicated nature of the system leads to discomfort. Therefore a smart energy-efficient house system should always account for a female opinion before male opinion.

Also, just like selecting videos from online services, most of the consumers do not read the details or lengthy texts. They just make their choices based on visual images. For the same results, it may be better to warn about emissions for environmentally conscious groups and inform about the savings for the cost-conscious ones.

The other issue is how to make efficiency stick to our daily lives. The rebound effect is real, and we are lazy. If technology does all the efficiency things in the background, that is great. If not so, technology can nudge consumers with enjoyable animations and information. That may work better than numbers. In an experiment, a polar bear on melting ice visuals on a showerhead screen has pushed some consumers for less hot water usage.

Although it may sound controversial, the consumers may not be interested in numbers, facts, or scientific explanations. The opinion matters more, and we can not change it in favor of facts. Therefore the technology should help energy efficiency in the opinion realm. While doing this, we should remember identity, behavior, and relations affect energy demand probably more than government campaigns.

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