Achieving energy efficiency through behaviour change: what does it take?

Rising energy costs have become a key cost driver for commercial building owners, managers and occupants alike. Energy and carbon audits are a common approach to obtain detailed information on energy use and saving opportunities. These audits tend to focus on investments in technological interventions and measures that replace existing equipment. But this is only half the story. How occupants use a building and the equipment within is at least just as important and a driving factor for achieving energy efficiency, but often not included in an energy or carbon audit. The behaviour of staff plays a big part as they more often than not have direct control of equipment, as well as some of the building services and may not know how to operate it efficiently. Good behaviour starts with engagement and good management, both of which are important when it comes to managing energy use and reducing the carbon footprint.

Office tenants, for example, may already occupy energy efficient buildings with high NABERS and Green Star ratings, regarding the building as sustainable per se. They may not take further actions in terms of behaviour change as the impact of behaviour change measures and scope for further improvement are considered to be limited. However, the intensity of use of commercial buildings, including occupancy levels and staff behaviour, can affect energy use in a significant manner.

Through the implementation of behaviour change measures, additional opportunities exist to achieve greater operational efficiencies, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and energy cost savings, resulting in increased productivity and improved brand value.

Looking for a silver bullet

Improved energy efficiency often is the result of particular ‘one-off’ technological measures, such as buying more energy efficient office equipment, changing lights, upgrading HVAC systems and retrofitting the building shell. Energy-related behaviour is complex, shaped by many factors, intrinsic to the individual and their situation. Developing and implementing appropriate behaviour change measures can be challenging, and various organisation- and context-specific factors will affect the choice of measures. Encouraging the uptake of some of the most effective energy efficiency measures therefore also demands an understanding of how people use energy in their businesses, and why they do not act already, in order to prompt a more energy efficient behaviour. Supported energy efficient behaviour can unlock hidden energy savings by empowering staff to control their energy use more efficiently.

Learning from fuel economy. Similar to occupying energy efficient buildings, fuel efficient vehicles are one way organisations are trying to reduce fuel consumption and costs. An organisation may have bought more fuel efficient cars, maybe even the odd hybrid. But just like with a commercial building, knowing how to drive (i.e. use) the vehicle properly is important and can make a significant difference. A Toyota Prius or Auris hybrid will not be able to realise their full potential if the driver rapidly accelerates and does not maintain a constant speed. Every time the driver opens the throttle, they are pumping more fuel into the engine. And the faster they go, the more fuel they will use. What is the solution? Learning how to use the vehicle properly, how to drive economically. This includes avoiding unnecessary idling, changing gears early, anticipating driving/traffic situations, keeping tires properly inflated and aligned, and removing excess weight from the car.  Providing fuel economy training can yield an average fuel consumption reduction of between 13 to 25 per cent.

Breaking the habit

The staff’s energy-consuming behaviour, such as the use of lights, air-conditioning, computers and other office equipment directly affects the operation of buildings and consequently their energy use. So while a business may occupy an efficient building, the behaviour of employees may offset some of these efficiencies. However, many of these everyday energy-consuming behaviours are habitual and based on individuals’ values and attitudes towards energy efficiency, as well as lifestyle patterns. Habits often have become automatic processes which may hinder a more efficient use of energy and will be particularly difficult to change.

Information asymmetry

Obstacles to change may occur as a lack of attention towards and information on energy consumption, lack of perceived control or a missing link between attitude and action. Often, staff do not have access to energy bills or energy audits, and have only a vague idea – if at all – of how much energy they are using for different purposes in the business. Consequently, they have little way of knowing in which way their everyday behaviour contributes to the overall energy use, or what sort of difference they could make by implementing simple changes to their behaviour in order to waste less energy and money.

Influencing behaviour

Engaging with staffs to change behaviour should go beyond simply putting up some reminders to turn off the lights. The overall goal is to change existing and incorporate new behaviours into ‘how things are done around here’, making them a new daily habit and social norm.  The following provides a short overview of some of the tactics designed to influence staff behaviours to make energy efficiency and other sustainability-related concerns a central part of a business.

Starting at the top.

Successful engagement and behaviour change programs require senior management buy-in and support. Putting senior people in charge of projects signals the importance of environmental commitments such as energy efficiency or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Senior management should ensure that organisation-wide initiatives include senior staff, and that major projects such as energy use reductions are assigned to a senior operations person. Equally important is ensuring that staff are responsible for environmental performance by creating a new role dedicated to sustainability or incorporate the responsibilities into an existing position within the business. Behaviour change should be supported by influential social proof, by being a role model and linking behaviour change measures to the social proof that others are doing so too. Walking the talk, switching off computers and lights off at night or when away from the office for more than, for example, 30 minutes.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Putting targets and commitments into writing and establishing policies that make corporate values explicit and codes of conduct that support environmental goals help to clarify performance expectations and support staff in making better decisions. This can include publishing environmental performance data and information on the company website and in the annual report. Allocating time and money to environmental initiatives such as recycling or purchasing carbon credits to offset the business’s emissions is another approach to demonstrating the organisation’s commitment. At new staff orientation, new employees should be taught about the business’s environmental goals and understand why they matter. Staff may view environmental programs as unwelcome additions to an already-full workload. This can be managed by training them on issues specific to their jobs, such as energy efficiency, waste management, or health and safety. Staff need to understand how these relate to their roles.

Making it visible and building it into everyday operations

Energy use is most likely to be invisible to most of the staff. Without an appropriate frame of reference, employees will find it difficult to determine whether their energy consumption is excessive or not. Feedback on day-to-day performance plays a significant role in raising energy awareness and changing staff behaviours and attitudes towards energy consumption. Real-time displays, provide real-time feedback on the effect of employees’ behaviour on energy consumption, as well as much richer data about an organisation’s ongoing performance. Changing operational defaults is frequently shown to be one of the most effective ways of reducing energy consumption. Review building management systems, computer energy saver modes and shut-down times, change the defaults when lighting and HVAC systems are turned on and off through the identification of core operating times, and align operating temperatures with best practice for commercial buildings in Australia, so that buildings are neither over-cooled nor over-heated.

Get staff involved

Engaging staff of varying seniority throughout the organisation shows that initiatives are not just “top-down” and are more likely to get more employee buy-in. Green champions, employees who are already passionate about the organisation’s environmental goals, need to be identified and encouraged to act as champions for environmental improvements in the organisation. Introducing a competitive element to, for example, team or departmental performance creates an incentive for teams or departments to avoid the reputational loss of being seen to perform poorly on the business’s commitment. Holding competitions to see which building, level, department or team can save the most energy relative to the previous month and circulating details of how the winners achieved savings encourages peer-to-peer learning, and help to reinforce the winning behaviour as a new social norm. Encouraging staff to figure out how they can save energy in their everyday work and make a difference is a powerful way of identifying saving opportunities previously not thought of.

Implementing simple behaviour change measures will result in small energy cost savings, which over time can amount to significant savings. Walking the talk, enabling staff and providing information on their energy use will allow staffs to identify and modify their behaviour. Furthermore, the actual cost of implementing behaviour change measures is often minimal compared to investment in technological modifications to achieve greater energy efficiency. Achieving greater energy efficiency is not a choice between either technology or behaviour change, but requires an understanding of the key drivers of energy consumption and the relationship between the building and its occupants.





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