In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.