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22/05/2013

Energy saving: a matter of behaviour

In 2008 the European Union (EU) ratified the "20-20-20" directive, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, increasing to 20% renewable energy quota and increase energy efficiency by 20%, all by 2020. However, the EU realised the impossibility to reach those targets. In order to get back on track, a new directive (Energy Efficiency Directive) has been approved.

At the same time, technology has led to a dramatic improvement in terms of appliances' energy performances; just think of LED light bulbs, hybrid cars, new A+++ households. Nevertheless, net energy consumption has increased. For example, while the average fuel consumption of cars has decreased by 15% in the last 20 years, the overall fuel consumption has increased by 30% (EU-27). Moreover, the average energy consumption of British houses has doubled since 1970, in spite of an average annual energy efficiency improvement of appliances by 2% per year.

This happens for several reasons: every house hosts more and larger appliances than a few years ago. Also, their improved efficiency urge us not to pay attention to how we use them; last but not least, we tend to use them more and not at their full potential. It is very discouraging. Although the EU designs directives willing to improve European energy efficiency and despite the technological improvements that produced less energy-intensive appliances, household energy consumption is steadily increasing.

Only now we are realizing that the real problem is behavioural. According to a recent report released by the European Energy Agency (Achieving energy efficiency through behavior change: what does it take?), the amount of energy wasted because of unsustainable behaviours if 5-20%. Different approaches can be used: 

 

  • Making consumers aware of their real energy consumption

This target can be reached through the use of home-automation technologies and by making energy bills clearer in terms of daily and historic consumptions. Addressing consumers with energy saving goals compatible with their lifestyle and their habits could help to save 5-15% of energy.

 

  • Community-based initiatives

Projects involving entire communities have a high potential of long-lasting energy saving because they facilitate the introduction of social norms within the group which make energy-saving desirable. In these cases, it is important to give the group a shareable target and providing them with a behavioural model. The potential for energy savings can reach 20%.

 

  • Addressing rebound effect

The rebound effect is a behavioural pattern making people consuming more energy as a result of the improved efficiency of their appliances. Consumers feel good for their “efficient” choice and stop paying attention to their behaviour. A real paradox! The typical example is that of those who buy a hybrid car and then use it to commute, even though they used to use public means. Or those who switch to LED bulbs and then leave them on. Addressing this pattern could get to save up to 30% of energy.

Eventually, even the most ambitious policies, the most refined directive and the most efficient appliances do not automatically lead to real energy savings. Fortunately (or not), individual behaviour and awareness still make the difference. Future projects and legislative proposals should take this into account to secure real energy savings.