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Distributed Behavior-Based Energy Efficiency: How we can Leverage Spheres of Influence to Fight Climate Change and Achieve Cost Effective Energy Savings

image credit: Source: MeterLeader

Nearly every individual contributes both to growing carbon emissions (to different degrees), and has a stake in combating climate change to ensure that warming stays below 2℃. To avoid potentially catastrophic consequences in the future, scientists say we must cut carbon emissions by at least half within the next 10 years. Such a Herculean task surely requires all hands on deck. So what are we waiting for? We can coordinate measurable and collective large scale climate action as individuals by leveraging behavioral interventions within our own spheres of influence. And we can begin implementing this approach by first focusing on energy efficiency. 

Leveraging Spheres of Influence

Within the context of the Social-Ecological Model developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, spheres of influence are the multiple levels (individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and public policy) of influence that shape an individual’s behaviors. 

We can use this same model, to help us to understand the factors that cause people to take or not take action to mitigate climate change. The model also suggests that in order to get people to take action to combat climate change, it is necessary to act across multiple spheres of influence at the same time. This approach is more likely to sustain climate change mitigation efforts over time than any single intervention.

Up until now, energy efficiency efforts have primarily been focused at levels of public policy and mass marketing campaigns promoting rebates. To accelerate adoption of energy efficient equipment and behaviors to enable us to eventually reach 100% clean energy, we need to increase focus on organizational and interpersonal spheres of influence.  

At the organizational level, many individuals are heavily influenced by their work environment. Work is a place where we spend most of our time, it’s where we cooperate in teams, and it is also a place where many of us derive our sense of status. Employer driven climate change/energy initiatives can leverage these same factors to motivate employees to take up climate change mitigation efforts. 

At the interpersonal level, many of our relationships now exist partially or completely on social media platforms. Like it or not, social media is a convenient way to connect with many friends and family quickly, it allows for the easy sharing of content, and it enables users to keep tabs on what their friends are doing in real-time. If you see your friends posting about making real carbon emission reductions, you are more likely to be interested in joining in. 

So how do we apply energy efficiency initiatives at the organizational and interpersonal levels? 

Applying Behavior Based Interventions

Behavioral interventions are proven methods of achieving significant energy savings. In fact a large portion of utility residential energy efficiency portfolio savings now come from behavior based interventions, primarily in the form of Home Energy Reports. Behavior-based programs are some of the most cost effective energy efficiency programs. 

But behavior-based programs need not stop at Home Energy Reports. In fact, ACEEE’s Report titled, “Reducing Energy Waste through Municipally Led Behavior Change Programs (2018)” shows us that a wide variety of behavioral interventions can yield significant energy saving results. The Report provides the following statistics:

  • Normative comparisons displayed via Home Energy Reports yield 1.2 - 2.2% in electricity savings 
  • Competitions and games can yield up to 14% energy savings for residential electricity, and 1.8 - 21% for commercial electricity
  • Community based strategies involving social interaction can yield 4.4 - 27% in energy savings
  • Real-time energy use feedback can yield 1 - 15% energy savings for electricity

Which leads us to our final question - how can we apply behavioral interventions in the context of our organizational and interpersonal spheres of influence?

Energy Saving Competitions are Effective, Easy, and Fun

Energy Saving Competitions are effective behavioral interventions that can be easily applied in the context of both organizational and interpersonal spheres of influence. Energy Savings Competitions involve users real-time electricity and natural gas data and individual and collective group energy saving goals. You can think of energy saving competitions as being similar to a Fitbit challenge, but instead of steps competitions are measuring kilowatt-hours, therms, and carbon emission reductions. 

Energy Saving Competitions combine many of the social science principles proven to achieve energy savings, including: competitions & games in the form of individual/team energy savings goals and prizes for top energy savers, community & social interaction through conversation amongst teammates and competitors, normative comparison in the form of a visible leaderboard showcasing participants and recognizing top energy savers, and real-time energy use feedback in the form of a dynamic leaderboard displaying changes in participants’ energy use. 

Energy Saving Challenges are also easy to run because their structure is simple. All Energy Saving Competitions at their core involve energy use data, a duration period, energy saving goals, a leaderboard displaying regularly updated results, and some type of prize for top energy savers. This simple structure structure also allows for many flavors of customization. Organizations can run energy saving competitions amongst their employees measuring each participant’s home energy use, or amongst office teams measuring energy use of each floor in the building, or amongst franchise locations measuring the energy use of multiple company locations. The ability to customize energy saving challenges to fit each specific organization’s needs are endless. Companies and other types of organizations can run energy saving competitions in the same way that they sponsor fitness competitions for their employees.

Energy saving competitions take a traditionally dry topic like energy and turn it into something fun. They are also a win-win for everyone involved. Challenge participants get a chance to save money on their utility bills, win prizes, and feel good knowing they are combating climate change. Similarly challenge organizers (can be any type of organization) can use energy saving competitions to help them meet their sustainability goals, provide community engagement for their employees/members, and recognize and reward those employees/members who make significant carbon emission reductions. Organizations can easily create and maintain energy saving competitions, requiring little in terms of cost, time, and resources. Challenges can be carried out by a variety of organizations targeting different participants specific to their sphere of influence. This is a new distributed approach to behavior-based energy efficiency.

Natalie Zandt's picture

Thank Natalie for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 15, 2020 12:52 pm GMT

This is a really cool idea, and the FitBit comparison hits home-- there's no logic going on in my brain when I decide I need to match a friend's level of steps, but the emotional response is there and it does work!

I have two questions on the concept, since I'd love to learn more about it and hopefully see it implemented:

First-- are these competitions focused on total energy use and comparing that or energy reductions from a given benchmark? It would seem that you would need to strive to really find good one-for-one comparisons to make them fair and make the goals seem achievable-- otherwise a home of a different size or even type (house vs. townhome vs. apartment) will be comparing apples with oranges. And if you're looking at reductions, is it on kWh or a %? Again, it would seem like finding the most apples to apples comparison would be necessary for those involved to feel like it's fair and achievable.

The other question I have-- what sort of evidence have you seen that one-time or even periodic competitions like this turn into long-lasting behavioral change? Is there a measurable 'bounce back' of people using more energy once the competition is over? Or do those habits stick with them? I would imagine the answer is somewhere in the middle of the starting point and the level achieved during the active competition, but I'd be curious where exactly it tends to lay.

Thanks again for sharing!

Natalie Zandt's picture
Natalie Zandt on Jul 17, 2020 11:52 pm GMT

Thanks for the questions! At MeterLeader we base rankings on % change in your own baseline usage, we believe this is the most fair way to make a comparison, given the variability in housing stock, etc. Regarding your second question, we don't have enough data just yet to show what long term results yield. But I will let you know when we do! 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 20, 2020 12:26 pm GMT

Thanks for the reply-- and really looking forward to hear about long-term results! That seems to be the point that would be really compelling and overcome the challenge a lot of other efficiency initiatives fall flat on

Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Jul 24, 2020 11:18 am GMT

This sounds a really fun idea. I also wonder if it is worth getting schoolkids on board for these sorts of challenges.  Although they aren't the ones paying the electricity bills, in my view the younger generation are a lot more tuned in on climate catastrophe and waste than some of the older people: e.g. the School Sttrikes and XR. 

You could easily have a challenge where a group of schools compete to see who can reduce their energy consumption the most. I feel these ideas get "plumbed in" early and so we would be building a greener generation of people.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 24, 2020 11:42 am GMT

I feel these ideas get "plumbed in" early and so we would be building a greener generation of people.

This is exactly what I was thinking, Julian. You get to them early and you're more likely to have an energy-conscious population down the line. It's playing the long game!

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