Changing human behaviour to save energy

18 JANUARY 2010

In these times of climate change and concerns about ever increasing energy consumption, what does it take to encourage people to use less energy?

CSU's Dr Rosemary Black
In these times of climate change and concerns about ever increasing energy consumption, what does it take to encourage people to use less energy?
The results of a two year project by Charles Sturt University (CSU) researchers who looked at ways of influencing students’ energy saving behaviour show that it’s the introduction of simple things such as shower timers, night lights, and energy use meters that can make a marked difference.
“The research does show that fairly simple tools have the capacity to change people’s energy use behaviour,” says CSU social scientist Dr Rosemary Black, a member of the University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society.
“While university students aren’t typical of the general population, based on this and other studies and provided you research your market or population carefully, some of the social marketing tools we used with the students would be useful in influencing people to use less energy.”  
The project, based at the University’s campus at Wagga Wagga, involved testing three strategies on students living in the campus’s 47 residential cottages, about 380 students. One was the installation of in-house digital display meters – so-called ‘ecoMeters’ - that gave instantaneous feedback on electricity consumption. The meters could also show students their past electricity use, say from the preceding day or week. Students were also able to work out which electrical appliances were using the most energy, something that that fascinated them, according to Dr Black.
The second strategy was the use of social marketing to develop population specific tools such as posters, shower timers, night lights and thermometers. The ideas for these tools came out of focus groups where students were asked about barriers to and benefits of changing behaviour. The third strategy was a combination of the ecoMeters and social marketing.
The project, which ran from 2007-2009 with the data collected over six months, was worth $240 000 and included funding from the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change and in kind support from Telstra, Country Energy and Landis & Gyr.  Every cottage used in the project was fitted with a smart meter which measured electricity and gas consumption every half hour.
Dr Black said all three strategies worked to differing degrees. Where the ecoMeters were installed, the students used 22 to 26 per cent less electricity; where the social marketing tools were introduced, they used 17 to 28 per cent less electricity; and where both approaches were used, they used 22 to 26 per cent less.
“This study is telling us that if you select the right tools you have to capacity to influence this particular group of people as there is nothing else to explain why the students changed their behaviour,” said Dr Black.
She said what was particularly interesting about the study was that it appealed to the students’ intrinsic motivation: they developed a sense of satisfaction of doing something for themselves and the environment.
“Other studies have used what we call ‘extrinsic motivators’ to encourage behaviour change such as lower energy costs, or prizes or rewards,” said Dr Black. “We didn’t apply any of these extrinsic motivators and despite that they still reduced their energy use. 
Other research actually shows that when you do give people an extrinsic motivator such as money or a reward to change behaviour, there may be a short term change in behaviour but it doesn’t last very long.”
Dr Black said it was exciting that CSU, based on the results of this research, decided to roll out the social marketing tools trialled to 90 student cottages on all CSU campuses. The University has also given the researchers funding to look at ways of influencing students’ energy use for students living in the new Halls of Residence at the Albury-Wodonga campus located at Thurgoona.
“The buildings and culture for students living in Halls of Residence is quite different to those living in cottages so we will be doing a similar project in 2010 to find the barriers for these students to change their energy use behaviour and develop and trial some social marketing tools,” said Dr Black.
“We are really pleased because it is a research project that has had an effect, an outcome.”
Recently Dr Black attended the Australasian Campuses for Sustainability Conference where she presented the findings of the research carried out by the CSU team, which included Dr Penny Davidson and Karen Retra, and found other universities were interested in doing similar activities.
Of the 650 000 undergraduate students in Australia, 51 000 students living in Colleges or Halls of Residence which are privately run, owned or affiliated with Australian Universities.

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