Behaviour Change and Energy Conservation – Using Social Pressure to save Energy

The greenest lightbulb is the one that you will turn it off. Well, not necessarily your LED or compact fluorescent light bulbs. That’s the efficiency dilemma, or known as Jevons paradox, where the economical use of fuel or electricity results not in diminished consumption but in an over-all increase. Despite us having energy efficient appliances rolled out in the market for quite some time, we still observe a net 60% increase in energy consumption per capita from early 1990s. Well, true enough that we can afford more appliances for the benefit of our indoor comfort and lifestyle today. However, such contradiction is validated whenever people refer the act of going ‘green’ is to purchase energy efficient appliances, but rarely probing on their own energy consumption pattern. Shouldn’t you be considering first on a smaller fridge, smaller air conditioner horse power or lesser amount and distribution of downlights instead of looking directly into EE fridge, EE AC, EE lighting and others? Or perhaps talking about ecological footprint, why not a smaller house if you are always on mobile? Another paradox is lighting which was a security necessity during stone age and now we have lighting pollution problem instead. Increasing the energy efficiency of illumination is nothing new, yet our efficiency gains haven’t reduced the energy we expend on illumination or shrunk our energy consumption over all.

Figure 1 Energy Pyramid

Negawatt as the Game Changer

We know the topic of self-sufficiency, or to use only what you need, proves to be unpopular amid living in a capitalistic driven society that speeches much about growth and wealth. But, it is also for a fact that the most reliable and the cheapest energy is the energy you do not use, and that unit of energy saved, is call “Negawatt”. The act of energy conservation and efficiency could ensure national energy security interest, reduce the peak electricity demand, create new business opportunities via a new market transition and potentially delay or prevent (a much controversial) nuclear power plant to be built. It is part of the sustainable growth equation that minimises economic, environmental and social cost. In fact, we do have an ongoing Negawatt Revolution locally that is mobilizing a 10% energy reduction campaign. You can find this recent nominated finalist for ASEAN Impact Challenge at

Figure 2 Negawatt Revolution

Awareness, Value, but Reduction?

Take the case for household energy conservation. Urban consumers seem to be gaining greater awareness of the value and need for sustainable energy practices, particularly amid growing public concerns over climate change and increasing cost of energy production. Yet even with adequate knowledge of how to save energy and a professed desire to do so, many consumers still fail to take noticeable steps towards energy efficiency and conservation. Gone are the days of mass awareness campaigns, pledges and petitions. Why is this so? There is often a sizeable discrepancy between peoples’ self-reported knowledges, values, attitudes and intentions, and their observable behaviour. Various research also call this as ‘knowledge-action gap’ and ‘value-action gap’. We need to question if our policies or mass media campaigns have a legit effect on actual energy use via a reliable audit. This kept me wonder if there is any energy audit done following the much alluded circulation in 2011 to mandate all government offices to set their air-conditioner temperature no lower than 24 degree celcius. Similarly to ETP’s EPP 9 SAVE program which stimulated the market demand for EE appliances, do we have a conclusive evident that our domestic energy per capita has reduced?

Complexity of Consumer Behaviour

The complexity of household energy consumption and conservation behaviour is manifested by the growing body of research indicates that consumer choices and behaviour is driven by cognitive biases and other ‘predictably irrational’ tendencies. In a stark contrast to the assumption of our practitioners and policymaker, people are rarely the rational decision makers envisaged by traditional economic models of human behaviour. Empirical evidence from psychology and behavioural economics shows that consumer choice and actions often deviate systematically from neoclassical economic assumptions of rationality. For example, people use mental shortcuts to cut through complexity when it comes to purchasing or behavioural change, they dislike losses more than they like gains, prefer lower value certainties over higher value risks, evaluate things in relative rather than absolute terms, and are heavily influenced by the people around them. Thus, there is a need for policy makers to emphasize on psychology and behavioural economics to deliver consumer-focused communication and other behavioural interventions aimed at encouraging household energy conservation.

Using Peer Pressure to Drive Energy Savings

While we know that consumer behaviour diverges across various societies across the globe, social peer pressure might be the answer globally. Given the majority of our people with the Not In My Backyard attitude and the few green fingers who are passionate on climate change, how do you persuade one in using less energy? What if I told you everyone in your neighbourhood is reducing their energy consumption – except you? Would competition and a little fear of judgement convince you to switch off the air conditioner? It all started when Dr Robert B. Cialdini, also the chief scientist advisor to Opower today, began investigating the blackout in 2001 that was caused by the summer heat wave. The big problem is despite 90% and 98% of Californians ranked energy conservation as extremely important and they ‘try to conserve energy’ respectively, no one was taking the necessary steps in their own homes. To learn why, Cialdini and his team placed three door hangers on thousands of homes which provided standard rationales for EE: saving money, protecting the environment, and helping future generations. All of these show a negligible on energy consumption. But, another hanger tried a different tack in reporting that a certain percentage of the neighbours were using fan instead of AC. It was, in essence, altruistic peer pressure – and it worked! The houses that received the hanger showed 6% average drop in consumption. This shows conscientiousness doesn’t inspire nearly as much change as competition (and a little judgement).

TNB-Opower Home Energy Report

The study led to the establishment of Opower, the Virginia based company that is thriving on a software that is changing the way Americans consume energy by setting them in a contest against their neighbours. Since its founding in 2007, Opower processes information from energy companies, then produces detailed energy consumption reports sent to each household. Opower also learnt that despite paper reports is a seemingly counterintuitive medium for a green company, the home owners at large will not take time to read an online energy report. Similarly, Opower requires customers to opt out of these reports rather than opt in since it’s explanatory which is more efficient to generate audience. The results are powerful as it is found that 20% of residential energy consumption can be saved with the power of guilt! That translates into roughly 5% of annual energy consumption in the United States. But here’s the exciting news, TNB launched its Customer Engagement Program with Opower effectively since August this year. Deemed to be the first to unveil such program of this kind in Southeast Asia, the pilot study will initially serve 200,000 households in Klang Valley, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca. And, I am so lucky to be one of them to share the user experience.

FIgure 3 OPower Dashboard

The online reports are simple, visually represented by forms of bar chart benchmarks of 100 similar home energy performance, your own home energy usage, and the 20% percent high efficient bracket of energy performance homes. It allows you to evaluate your energy use, correlate it with the energy cost and outdoor daily temperature trend. Most importantly, the dashboard pushes you further by suggesting zero cost energy savings tips in accordance to your residential typology. Then, you can customize and print out as an action plan to achieve your goal. It is simple to use, just key in your TNB Bill account number at the portal ( with less than a minute or so (if you are the lucky 200,000 chosen participants). However, as a 1,100 square feet condominium with 3 occupants, I am surprised that my home energy performance is similar or better than efficient homes despite not having any new energy efficient appliances. Perhaps that speaks a lot that we are indeed an energy thirst nation. It would’ve been better if the dashboard nudge me to do even better to achieve below RM20 monthly bill so I can waive off the electricity bill! Also I was surprised to find that my home was chosen under this pilot program as I was not notified via any channel. It will be more effective if TNB prints those home energy report monthly to all actually.

Figure 4 TipsA vital component in the psychology strategy of social pressure is to ensure effective feedback communication on the cause of one’s action. This can be demonstrated in how some new drivers to hybrid cars such as Toyota Prius think that their driving behaviour have changed to a more economical style of driving. Just a simple multi information display screen that shows the miles-per-gallon performance indicator and overall average MPG performance, the driver will prompt to drive better while perceives as gaining cost savings. It will be better if there is a mobile app to display the benchmarks of various drivers just like how OPower does. It is the very same concept which many sports tracking app have leveraged on, social pressure. Because one certainly does not want to be the below of any performance chart. With great computer cloud system that feedbacks people on their home energy performance effectively, it is hopeful that Opower will be extended to more home users across Malaysia. By crunching huge amount of energy usage data and understanding our consumer behaviour, policy makers should take advantage on crafting interventions that can successfully bridge the value-action gap. The speech to drive energy efficient practices should not be played on a tone of saving the environment, but playing a merit game with your neighbours. Peer Pressure.