Exploring Energy Culture

Reducing energy consumption poses a number of benefits to an organisation. By conserving energy, an organisation can reduce costs and environmental damage which can lead to more competitive tenders and an enhanced perception by key stakeholders. In the past, many organisations have focused almost exclusively on investment in more energy efficient equipment and automated controls. However, it has been found that users that are not engaged will often try to regain control to the detriment of the performance of the technology. It is therefore important to consider the employee and the energy culture of the organisation as part of a wider holistic approach to energy management and conservation.

Current work on defining and measuring the energy culture of an organisation is limited, with the Energy Institute currently developing a toolkit for future release. This project will therefore seek to expand this area of knowledge, examining how a simple set of tools can be used to assess the energy culture, both at an organisational and an individual office scale, and then how this culture can be improved using awareness and feedback interventions.

This post will address three areas:

  • Published material covering energy culture;
  • Significant barriers to behaviour change
  • Interventions to promote change

1) Energy Culture

Organisational “culture” as a term first appeared in the literature in the early 1980s and has since been utilised to describe specific themes such as the Safety culture of an organisation. Schein (1990) identified the lack of a clear definition and understanding of this term and attempted to resolve this by describing culture as a pattern of basic assumptions held by an organisation that have worked well enough to be considered valid and are therefore taught to new members as the correct way to react in given situations. This definition can also encompass energy culture whereby the “assumptions” or norms and traditions would reflect how energy is perceived and managed within an organisation. If energy is never a management focus and lights and equipment are constantly left on with seemingly no negative repercussions then a negative energy culture would take hold. Any new starters would find it difficult not to become embedded within these norms.

More recently, there have been some attempts to produce toolkits to measure the energy culture of organisations. Examples include the Environmental Association for Universities & Colleges (EAUC) WorkWare SUSTAIN benchmarking toolkit and an EU project called MECHanisms. However, these appear to have struggled to move beyond the trial stage and now appear largely inactive on their respective websites. In contrast the Energy Institute (EI) is currently developing a toolkit and is engaged with a large number of stakeholders and contributors (King, 2015). As part of this project, the EI have published an energy culture ladder (Figure 1), which ranges from Pathological (Who cares) to Generative (Fully embedded). This will serve as an excellent link between this project and the toolkit to be published by the EI later in 2016.

 2) Barriers to Change

Psychological research has highlighted a great number of barriers to behaviour change (Swim et al., 2009). Five of the most relevant to behaviour change in the workplace will be examined briefly here.

 2.1 Lack of Awareness

The vast majority of employees will not be involved in energy or facilities management in their places of work. They will therefore be unlikely to have an awareness of energy consumption patterns or opportunities to improve their own behaviour (Carrico & Riemer, 2011).

 2.2 Conflicting Goals & Aspirations

Most people in the workplace will have multiple targets and energy conservation is unlikely to be at the top. For example, if a cleaner needs to move from room to room frequently they will likely leave the lights on to prioritise their main goal to the detriment of energy consumption. Therefore, efforts must be made to ensure energy conservation is a visible goal perhaps via awareness campaigns or through incentives whether financial or otherwise (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000).

 2.3 Place Attachment

Numerous studies (e.g. Stern, 2011) have demonstrated that where people feel a greater connection with their local environment, they are more likely to behave in a pro-environmental way. This lesson can be taken into the workplace: where employees are most engaged with their workplace they should be more likely to respond positively to behaviour change interventions.

 2.4 Perceived Behavioural Control

In large offices individual employees may feel that they cannot exert enough control to make a difference to overall energy consumption patterns. This is termed the collective-action problem (Olson, 1965). Any behaviour change interventions will need to emphasise the collective ability of individuals to influence real change in order to receive buy-in.

 2.5 Perceived Risks from Behaviour Change

The perceived risks from promoting energy conservation can be a significant barrier to change. Swim et al. (2009) identify 6 possible risks of which three are deemed most relevant in this context: (1) functional risk – whether an adaptation will work; (2) social risk – whether there will be an impact on ego or reputation; and (3) time – whether it will be wasted. Pre-empting these concerns with robust business cases, group engagement and management support should reduce these barriers to change.

3) Interventions to Promote Change

There has been a substantial amount of research on behaviour change over past decades from both economic and psychological disciplines. However, the vast majority of this work has focused either on domestic or public policy settings (Murtagh et al., 2013). This review will therefore draw from both pools of research, though placing more weight on findings from workplace settings (e.g. Siero et al., 1996; Daamen et al., 2001; Carrico & Riemer, 2011). Whilst there are a great number of psychological theories governing the promotion of behaviour change, here we will cover awareness and feedback interventions.

 3.1 Awareness Interventions

We have already identified that a lack of knowledge on energy conservation can be a barrier to behaviour change. This awareness can be provided in a number of ways, for example emails (Daamen et al., 2001), consumption data (Murtagh et al., 2013) or internet tools (Abahamse et al., 2007). Energy awareness campaigns are one of the most popular interventions carried out by utilities, public sector bodies and private organisations.

However, results from these initiatives are often mixed. For example, Carrico & Riemer (2011) observed a 4% increase in energy consumption in their information-only control group. Numerous studies have also highlighted the concern that these awareness campaigns provide a cost-effective, but temporary reduction in energy conservation, dissipating over time (Hargreaves et al., 2010; Murtagh et al., 2013).

In the defence of awareness interventions Daamen et al. (2001) found that their impact was enhanced where recommendations were tailored towards the specific audience. Staats et al. (2000) showed in their study of an office environment that periodic augmentations of the materials did maintain the observed energy consumption reductions for extended periods of time.

To further improve the performance of awareness interventions, this project will introduce the concept of social norms theory (Cialdini et al., 1991). This theory developed two types of norms: descriptive and injunctive. Descriptive norms describe how most people react in a situation whilst injunctive norms describe what most others approve or disapprove of. A number of studies have examined the descriptive norm, for example Nigbur, Lyons & Uzzell (2010) found that creating a perception that their neighbours were putting recycling bins out for collection encouraged others to do the same. Similarly, in a study of hotel signs promoting towel reuse, Goldstein et al. (2008) found that descriptive norms (e.g. “the majority of guests reuse their towels”) was much more effective than traditional approaches focusing on environmental protection.

However, a number of studies have found that using a descriptive norm in isolation can result in a “boomerang effect” (Ringold, 2002) whereby those displaying the optimal behaviour prior to an awareness intervention may actually deteriorate subsequently (Allcott, 2009). This is because the descriptive norm acts as a “magnet” for behaviour not only incentivising those under-performing to improve but also acting to negatively influence behaviour of the best performers prior to studies (Schultz et al., 2007).

Fortunately, this boomerang effect can be offset by combining descriptive norms with an injunctive norm. For example, Schultz et al. (2007) found that providing a smiley face (representing approval) where a home was performing better than average along with the standard energy consumption report eliminated this affect. This concept was also explored by Cialdini (2003) using the example of an old American pollution prevention advertisement from the 1970s and 1980s. The advertisement drew acclaim at the time showing a Native American shedding a tear whilst observing a polluted environment and a motorist throwing rubbish out of his car as he drove along. However, modern psychology would warn against this “normatively muddled” message which shows a targeted activity as socially disapproved (injunctive norm), but widespread (descriptive). The suggestion of littering as widespread could in fact reduce the success of the campaign. The ideal modern variant would be a motorist littering (injunctive) an unpolluted environment (descriptive).

In summary, an understanding of the theory of social norms can inform a more successful awareness campaign to drive positive behaviour change. Messages should be clear and eye-catching, they should not focus so much on environmental protection, but instead utilise a combination of descriptive and injunctive messages. For example, in order to encourage office workers to turn off their computer monitors at the end of the day, an awareness campaign might enhance its success by using a message such as “90% of the office team turn their monitors off at the end of the day” (descriptive norm) with a picture of the vast majority of monitors being switched off (injunctive norm) instead of simply “turn off your monitor to save energy” and a picture of lots of monitors left on at night.

3.2 Feedback Interventions

Whilst the results of information provision interventions as described above can be mixed, the results of studies giving people feedback on their performance has been much more consistent. Stern (2011) found that typical domestic studies found a 5-12% reduction in energy consumption. Providing feedback has been argued to be more effective than simple information provision because it is specific to the individual’s situation and because its frequency facilitates learning how to achieve the savings. With technological advances such as smart meters, providing feedback on energy consumption is now easier than it has ever been before.

Workplace examples of feedback provision are much less common and hence form a strong justification for this project. Siero et al. (1996) did conduct a comparison of information provision versus feedback at two metallurgical plants and found that the group provided with feedback reduced their energy consumption more significantly. Similarly, Carrico & Riemer (2011) found that whilst information provision actually resulted in a 4% increase in energy consumption in a workplace, monthly email feedback resulted in a 7% reduction over the same period.

In summary, in combination with the use of social norms theory the most effective energy behaviour change campaign is likely to include an element of feedback on an individual or office-scale.


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