Just a Little Nudge: The Science of Energy Consumption, Innovation, and Behaviour Change

Nest thermostatCompanies in the business of energy efficiency don’t tend to attract much attention, so when Google dropped $3.2 billion for thermostat-maker Nest, eyebrows went up around the world.

Nest succeeds in part because of the way in which it uses design and engineering to almost imperceptibly shift energy consumption habits. Its Apple-pedigree designers understood that our relationship with energy is as much about behaviour as it is about technology.

Advances in behavioural science are spurring new business opportunities, including software service companies working to measurably and durably change energy consumption attitudes.

Late last year the New York Times reported on Britain’s Ministry of Nudges, the 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 — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process.”

In 2011, the team published a report describing how the government could use behavioural insights to help people save energy and money, and launched four trials premised upon overcoming our behavioural predisposition to discount the future, hew to social norms, and default to pre-set options.

But it’s not just the public sector that is experimenting with “nudging” consumers’ energy behaviour. Pulse Energy, a BC-based company, offers a range of services to commercial clients including B.C. Hydro and Fortis BC. Also, in the United States, OPower has emerged.  There are few better primers on behavioural efficiency than OPower co-founder Alex Laskey’s February 2013 TED talk. (This white paper takes you deeper into the details wonks like me love.)

In November, OPower published a state-by-state analysis of “The Energy Savings Potential of Behavioural Efficiency.” Rolled up, the analysis shows how behavioural efficiency could save 18,677 GWhs across the nation, that’s 169kWh per household, or in more intelligible terms:

  • enough energy to power 35,534,626 light bulbs 24/7 for a year,
  • at least $2.2 billion in US customer bill savings per year,
  • or 10 million metric tons in abated carbon.

While OPower works around the world, its sole Canadian client to date has been Efficiency Nova Scotia, an independent, non-profit organization that helps Nova Scotians use energy better and save money. But it’s exactly this type of innovative approach that we need to harness if we are to capitalize on the promise energy efficiency offers.

Relative to other countries, Canada is doing pretty well when it comes to energy efficiency, but that’s no excuse to rest on our laurels. There’s still plenty of opportunity to bump energy efficiency up the priority list for both governments and consumers, and hopefully 2014 will see behavioural science approaches help “nudge” us closer to our efficiency potential.

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