Harnessing behavioural science for energy efficiency

John Walsh, Senior Strategic Account Manager at E.ON

Have you ever thought about why you save energy at home but not at your workplace? Our research shows more than twice as many people turn the thermostat down at home than do when they are in the office. Why is that? The answer may seem obvious – your finances are going to suffer if you keep the heating on at home the entire time. What about the office though? Most people we surveyed have not even heard about their company’s energy saving practices and care more about flexible working hours.

This is understandable – as human beings we care very deeply about what concerns us directly, so our personal finances or our wellbeing preoccupy us. We do not see office energy efficiency as part of our problem or an immediate threat and the same is true for climate change. When we think about climate change we often think of something distant, abstract and slow-moving, not requiring immediate action. In the UK though, buildings alone account for nearly 40% of the total country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So how do you get people to change their workplace attitudes and behaviours? Clearly, you cannot just order them, but what you can do is give them a nudge in the right direction.

A recent behavioural science experiment, commissioned by E.ON, demonstrated how over the course of a year the efficiency savings in a small office represented enough energy to run 81 laptops for 12 months or boil a kettle nearly 54,000 times.

At the core of this experiment, we wanted to test how a range of behavioural science theories can be used to change your employees’ habits and help reduce energy use – from switching off computer monitors and printers at night, to turning off lights and leaving the office thermostats at a recommended setting.

The set-up of the office used proved ideal for the experiment. Each side of the office has its own energy meter, which made it easy to directly compare the impact that small and low-cost nudges have on our energy use at work, as well as the financial savings to the business, compared to a control group with no nudges installed.

What I mean by nudges are small interventions, designed to prompt people into a different pattern of behaviour, such as switching a light off that they may have left on. These make use of behavioural change techniques to guide employees into more sustainable choices. 

The prompts varied from simple stickers above light switches prompting people to turn them off, text above heating controls guiding employees to keep it within an advised range to goal-setting personal pledges and assigned energy ambassadors to keep people accountable. The nudges installed were all subtle and low cost to produce, coming in at less than £50.

As a result of these nudges, the experiment saw significant reductions in energy use, with the amount used for sockets and lighting falling by 4%. Meanwhile, with the experiment taking place in the colder autumn months, energy use for heating in both halves of the office saw a rise. However, while the control group nearly doubled its usage, the experiment group saw a rise of only a quarter. This resulted in a total saving of 26% in energy use for the half of the office undertaking the experiment.

The experiment demonstrated the powerful role behavioural science can play in energy saving. Conversely, nudges may not fundamentally shift people’s perception about climate change, but they can shift behaviours leading to offices saving energy and consequently contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.