Creating Low Carbon Communities
through Behaviour Change

Community-led approaches stimulating individual and collective energy action have emerged as an alternative route for realising reductions in energy demand, through changes in people's understanding and behaviours related to energy consumption and generation. Much social and environmental psychological research has been undertaken on how domestic energy behaviours can be influenced in order to reduce energy consumption. Over the years, a large variety of interventions, from financial incentives and rewards to information and awareness campaigns have been used in order to encourage households to change their behaviours and reduce their energy consumption. The invisibility of energy is seen as a reason why households, even if they do profess positive environmental attitudes, do not always behave in ways that conserve energy use. Several studies indicate that the provision of information in conjunction with feedback can have a significant impact on domestic energy consumption, through the prompting of changes in energy behaviours and practices.

Feedback involves giving information, often through visualisation to households regarding their energy consumption or energy savings specifically, or comparable feedback which can be temporal (comparison of household's historic energy consumption to current) or social (comparison of household's energy consumption or savings to that of other households). The frequency of the feedback can vary; from continuous direct feedback (e.g. energy display monitors, online and app-based visualisations) to weekly, monthly, annual indirect feedback (e.g. billing). Research shows that direct continuous feedback techniques can result in 5-15% household energy savings, although the focus has been on providing numeric based feedback.

Over the last few years, I have led an interdisciplinary programme of research funded by Research Councils UK (RCUK) to evaluate the impacts of low carbon communities (LCCs) entitled EVALOC project. As part of the EVALOC project, we have been systematically testing and evaluating more visual and innovative energy feedback techniques (carbon mapping, thermal imaging) at different scales, alongside traditional methods (web-based energy and environmental visualisation, home energy reports) delivered through community workshops, home visits and internet, across six low carbon communities in the UK. As shown in the figure 1, the feedback techniques cover a variety of media (maps, thermal images, web platform, reports) and scales (spatial and temporal), including carbon mapping of household energy use and potential for energy savings; thermal imaging showing heat loss from building fabric; web-based energy and environmental visualisation platform (WEEV) showing near real-time household energy use in relation to indoor and outdoor environmental conditions; and personalised home energy reports (HERs) accompanied by home visits.

Findings of the study show visualisation and communication of house-by-house carbon emissions in the form of colour-coded spatial maps (see figure 2). Community workshops provided evidence about the impact of community action on household energy use and showed that 'others' were also actively engaged in energy action. Overall it emerged as a useful technique for scaling-up LCCs action both for community members and local councils. Despite being data-driven, the WEEV platform had mixed reactions. Some individuals were overwhelmed by the platform while others were disappointed with the limitations of the analysis.

It was also realised that energy feedback alone may not be enough to stimulate further energy reduction. Instead, the most effective forms of feedback are likely to include both products (be it maps, thermal images, reports, online platforms) and services (compilation of data, targeting and tailoring of recommendations) that provide householders with timely and detailed information that is presented in multiple ways, tailored to the consumers, and contextualised to provide meaning and motivation. In delivery of such feedback, some degree of personal contact was needed to make the most of what the feedback was able to provide in the way of information. Such an integrated approach combining feedback technology and personal contact is likely to be welcomed given the experience in this study.

To enable policy-makers to actively engage with these visual and traditional energy feedback methods to stimulate energy behaviour change, reflections are made on the resources associated with each feedback approach for roll-out. The feedback approach of carbon mapping is highly scalable from single dwellings to a street, neighbourhood or even a town/city. Where active community groups exist, the community group members can help with the data collection process. Thermal imaging and Home Energy Reports (HERs) can be time intensive since they are traditionally performed on a house-by-house level. Cost of a thermal imaging camera is coming down, although there are opportunities to rent or hire a professional to perform assessments. Thermography equipped drones are now being used to increase speed, lower cost and simplify the process of thermal imaging inaccessible points such as high facades and roofs. HERs and visits can be resource intensive but can work where there is an active community group or where already trained energy assessors can be used, in which case the value for money is expected to be high. Web-based Energy and Environmental Visualisation Platforms (WEEV) need a third-party to install the sensors, design the interface, conduct analysis and manage data which proved to be time-consuming and expensive. Though a WEEV platform is neither cheap nor easy to do, once set up, it does have potential if it can be linked with time-of-use tariffs.

In conclusion, our evidence based study has shown that most of the energy feedback approaches were able to engage and raise awareness amongst the householders in the six communities. Whilst carbon mapping was felt to be aimed more at community groups and local councils by providing evidence of past and future community action, displaying carbon maps at community workshops helped to show that others were also engaged in energy action. Thermal imaging was successful in engaging local residents both through community workshops and home visits especially when included in the home energy reports, by stimulating discussions on future energy savings through building fabric upgrade. The traditional approach of Home Energy Reports, tended to be forgotten or 'put in a drawer for later'. Yet, when combined with a researcher's visit, they created the opportunity for discussion by creating an awareness of energy on a very personal level for the household. This increasingly personal approach has to underpin the delivery of any future energy feedback approach. However, the data-driven web-based platform has had limited uptake due to online log in requirement and information overload. Such insights are useful for those involved in scaling-up the deployment of energy feedback to encourage energy demand reduction.

Research reported here has been published as an international peer-reviewed scientific journal article -

Professor Rajat Gupta
Director, Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development and
Low Carbon Building Group,
United Kingdom



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