By Greg Shreeve, Senior Insight Consultant, Energy Saving Trust
We can all expect to receive more detailed information about our energy usage thanks to the ongoing roll out of smart meters. In Great Britain, we should see more than 53 million smart meters fitted in over 30 million homes and businesses by 2020. And this roll out isn’t only happening here. The EU has also set a target for at least 80 per cent of energy consumers to have smart meters by 2020.
That’s going to give us access to a lot of data about the amount of energy we are consuming – but how can we make sure any of this is effective in promoting sustainable energy use?
We know that few people regularly look at their electricity and gas meters, or are even confident they understand the consumption figures on their bill. In general the main information we are concerned with is the information that is most important to us; for instance how much money do I have to pay for the energy I use.
For smart metering to have an impact on how we use energy, we will need to have a way to turn the meter data into useful information and advice. And for this to effective it will need to be engaging.
To look at this, Energy Saving Trust (EST) has embarked upon a European wide project called Natconsumers (natural language consumers), which will be running until April 2017.
The project involves working with artificial intelligence specialists, sociologists, market researchers, designers and energy experts to develop a way in which we can use smart meter data to communicate with households using personalised and persuasive advice about how to change people’s thinking and behaviour.
The EST mantra has always been that in order for advice to be effective, it needs to be personalised. Advice needs to be relevant to an individual’s circumstances and also needs to speak to them using language that is clear and engaging.
What is so innovative and exciting about Natconsumers is its use of Natural Language communication. This means using artificial intelligence to develop emotionally responsive communication.
We know that how we use energy in the home is related to our habits and behaviours, which in turn may be related to our emotional state. For instance this might mean running a hot bath to relieve stress, or leaving our appliances on because we feel too busy to bother to turn things off.
If we want to change people’s behaviours, our advice needs to be sympathetic, or at least aware of, our feelings towards energy use.
Rather than being cold and utilitarian, our aim is to provide positive feedback to encourage sustainable energy use whilst trying to discourage the unsustainable. The trick is to do this without advising people to use energy in ways that are impractical for their situation.
The first step in the Natconsumers project has been understand what factors affect different individual’s energy use, and which are likely to be important when encouraging sustainable energy use.
To do this, EST led a review with the Natconsumers consortium of over 100 articles looking into these factors. There were also workshops to understand the differences in energy consumption, energy systems and the state of the smart meter roll-out in different European nations.
This is so we can develop a method that is relevant for consumers with air conditioning in the south of Europe as it is for Scandinavians who use a considerable proportion of their electricity heating saunas during the winter months.
The review found that the factors affecting household energy use fell into three groups:
Knowledge and psychological factors – related to individuals understanding and attitude towards energy use as well as personal values and beliefs.
Individual context factors – these are issues at a local level that may affect an individual’s ability to change their energy use. For instance the type of home they live in, how large their household is and how many appliances they own.
Wider context factors – these are factors that generally vary on a country by country basis, such as climate, or how energy is generated and distributed within a country.
One of the key issues identified is the common assumption that households with greener attitudes are more likely to be more environmentally responsible in terms of how they use energy. For instance attitude is seen as a fundamental component of Azjen’s “Theory of Planned Behaviour” along with social norms and perceived behavioural control. Our research indicates that this assumption is perhaps misguided.
A number of studies show that in reality there is a gap between attitudes and behaviour. For example, the UK Household Electricity Usage study showed that households with environmentally friendly attitudes are not necessarily those with the lowest consumption.
Some studies showed that the correlation between attitude and behaviour can be masked by other, contextual factors such as house type and household size. We can easily imagine that regardless of how environmentally friendly we wish to be, if we want to heat our house during the winter the amount of energy required to heat a large house will be greater than a small flat.
Whilst attitudes may not be a useful predictor of how much energy a household is likely to use, the research found that understanding a person’s values can be helpful in order to tailor messaging to be more resonant with their world view. Unlike attitudes, values are regarded as a more broad, intrinsic and sustained aspect of a person.
A person’s values could be described as either altruistic or individualistic, or anthropocentric or biocentric. For instance, we may communicate differently with someone whose values are oriented towards security – say to emphasise how energy efficiency reduces the need to import energy; than to someone whose values are hedonistic – in which case we may emphasise energy efficiency measure that could increase comfort or convenience.
In order to make use of the review, quantitative surveys have been carried out in different countries around Europe to gather data about how these factors play out amongst different households in different parts of Europe.
This data will be used to produce models that will inform the different messages for Natconsumers. We are also hosting a 'Design Jam' on Wednesday 28 September 2016 in London to explore innovative ways of targeting and delivering advice to different types of household.