Clean Energy Canada | How To Change Canada's Energy Habits
May 21, 2014

Imagine, with the flick of a switch, taking Calgary homes off the power grid for six months of the year.

No, it’s not the plot of this summer’s dystopian blockbuster. Rather, it’s a vivid illustration of the actual energy savings potential that could be unlocked across the country if electric utilities were to equip Canadians with tools and programs to help them reduce their energy use.

Late last year the New York Times reported on Britain’s “Ministry of Nudges” — essentially a Behavioural Insights Team that “has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity.” The Ministry has reportedly saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds.

You may not realize it, but a big chunk of that potential goes beyond the conventional technology-related solutions you’ve heard about, like EnerGuide ratings on appliances, better insulation for your home, and more fuel-efficient cars. Those approaches are important and have helped move the needle in recent decades, but in many cases they overlook a critical factor: human behaviour.

The truth is, to a large degree our behaviour — the patterns we live by, our habits, the choices we make in the marketplace — determines how much energy we use, or don’t use. And in the past few years, advances in behavioural science and big data have begun to yield impressive results in the public and private sector to nudge consumer behavior in an energy savvy direction.

Pulse Energy, a BC-based company, offers a range of services to commercial clients including BC Hydro and Fortis BC. Meanwhile, Opower, a Virginia-based company, has emerged as the early leader in creating behavior-based tools that encourage residential and small businesses customers to change their energy habits. The company delivers personalized information via multiple communications channels to consumers in Canada, the United States, and six other countries in Europe and Asia.

In its study of behavioural energy efficiency potential in Canada, Opower found that utilities could empower 8.3 million Canadian households — 65 per cent of the country — with personalized Home Energy Reports that could in turn deliver 1,792 gigawatt hours of annual electric savings, or 409 megawatts of annual capacity savings across the country. Hence the Calgary yardstick.

The results are interesting when you dive in. Because each province has its own electricity system, results vary across the country. For example, Quebec annually stands to save the most energy from behavioral efficiency — enough to power the Montreal Metro for almost three years — and would allow citizens to keep an extra $55 million in their pockets.

When it comes to reducing climate pollution, behavioural efficiency programs are also a winner. They could help Albertans avert more than 100,000 annual tonnes of greenhouse gases of the 275,000 annual tonnes identified nationally. That’s the equivalent of the amount of carbon dioxide locked up in more than 40 million litres of gasoline.

Recent public-opinion research by the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance suggests Canadians appear to be open to the idea of being nudged to use less power. The alliance found that many Canadians believe home energy efficiency improvements will save them money — but even more believe they could save a great deal if they changed their behaviour.

For utilities, behaviour-based energy efficiency programs could make for happier customers, as industrial and household ratepayers alike are ready to be empowered to better manage their energy use and bills. Similarly, policymakers charged with delivering on energy efficiency will appreciate having one more arrow in their quiver. And for companies like Opower, Pulse Energy, Ecotagious and others, it’s a growing business opportunity.

When energy makes headlines, its usually because of conflicts arising from how that energy is produced — such as the oil sands — or geopolitical tensions, from Russia to the Middle East to Venezuela. But as the world grapples with rapidly rising energy demand, the environmental and climate impacts of energy production, and increasing energy costs, the imperative to use energy more efficiently will loom ever larger.

Canada must and will shift towards an energy-efficient, ecologically responsible, and prosperous low-carbon economy. And behaviour-based energy efficiency programs will help us get there.

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post’s blog.