Study shows feedback on energy consumption can cut electricity use

An energy-efficiency programme in Cyprus, France, Malta and Spain which equipped households with smart meters and customised reports saw electricity consumption fall by up to 27%.

It underlines the value of using tools and tailored information to monitor consumption and reduce energy use, say researchers.

Households and buildings are responsible for more than 40% of energy use in the EU.

Technical solutions to energy efficiency are important, but householders’ behaviour can be just as important, if not more so, previous research has suggested. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ energy-efficiency awareness campaign designed to change behaviour is unlikely to work equally well across all of society and campaigns targeted at certain groups are likely to trigger higher savings.

A study conducted under the EU-funded ELIH-Med project  considered how to encourage energy efficiency in low-income households in the Mediterranean area. A total of 125 households were given technologies – in-house display screens or smart meters – which monitored and provided feedback on energy usage. Of the participants, 60 were in Spain, 25 in France, 25 in Cyprus and 15 in Malta.

They were also given informative bills and customised reports, which gave personalised advice on how to save energy, as well as information on how much energy they had used, its costs and associated CO2 emissions.

The project conducted a number of awareness-raising activities to encourage the use of new technologies and promote energy-efficient behaviour. Before installing the feedback technologies, the researchers provided information on energy efficiency in printed literature (e.g. posters and brochures), in meetings, at information points and on a website.

They also recruited local representatives to coordinate their neighbours’ energy-consumption activities and encourage an ‘it can be done’ attitude. Each household had a walk-through energy audit and was presented with the results.

Falling energy use
All groups saw an overall drop in electricity usage up to two years after the campaign began, although results varied by location. For example, there was a 27.4% drop in electricity consumption for Cypriot participants and in Malaga, Spain, there was a total decrease of 22.4%. Participants in Malaga said they appreciated receiving comparative feedback enriched with efficiency indicators, which compared their usage to average consumption. They also liked the graphic representation of billing information. The researchers say that this customised feedback empowered the residents to make energy savings.

Energy savings were lower in Valencia, Spain, but were still significant – 10.2%. The researchers believe this is because the Valencia participants were older, mainly retired and not interested in accepting the in-house display technologies, which they felt invaded on their privacy and made no difference to their electricity consumption. This result reinforces the need to tailor campaigns specifically to different groups of society, if the full potential of behavioural change is to be realised.

The most valued feedback by the participants in Valencia was a breakdown of electricity costs per appliance. They mostly ignored information explaining their CO2 emissions. Therefore, efficiency indicators concentrating on costs are most likely to be effective for this social group.

Although the project had a small number of participants, it provided a real testing environment, with the full support of the occupants and a rich level of information to build on with further work. The researchers noted the enthusiasm and desire to co-operate among the participants, many of whom had initially been sceptical and fearful of government control.

Energy-awareness campaigns for this social group should, therefore, work to build a foundation of trust. Including representatives of the local community in preparations and awareness campaigns proved to be a crucial point in the transfer of sustainable ideas.

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