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Saving energy entails a cultural change

A call for action from Enercoop, France

· Blog

Since the need of a global energy transition1 has been called for, we tend to strongly underline the notion of energy savings – mainly in industrialized countries – sometimes incorrectly simplified as «energy efficiency»2.

Although the topic of energy savings is regularly present in discussions around the changes of our energy system, it is often pushed into the background as a bonus in the transition and not a necessity. The energy sector’s main protagonists have incorporated much faster the principle of producing energy differently – thanks to renewable energy installations – than saving energy. This being partly due to the fact that most of them have first and foremost a technical, even technicist vision of the sector.

It is no coincidence that energy efficiency has had more success than the broader notion of energy savings. Again, this is a technical solution that aims at improving yields, which engineers understand quickly.

Referred to as “sobriety” in France (or “frugality” for the more radical), behavioral aspects remain the often forgotten issue of the energy transition. Even though a lot of scientific research exists on that topic, most works are rather to be found in humanities through psychology and sociology of behavioral change, including specifically on energy consumption. However, sociologists are not the ones driving the energy sector, or else we would know!

Yet solutions going towards the field of behavioral change have emerged in recent years, starting from a sociological and statistician conclusion: knowing one’s consumption makes it possible to initiate an energy saving process.

And as is often the case, what comes through most strongly are technical solutions said "at the service of comfort". We talk about devices in "home automation" or “domotics”, appliances and softwares that allow us to know our energy consumption (for instance) and act on it, through tips, alerts or remotely control it.

At the same time, distribution system operators are massively installing “smart" meters, supposed to deliver more precise data on consumption and provide information to the end consumers; enabling them to take concrete action on their consumption.

Strongly encouraged by European directives in the service of the energy transition (arrival of decentralized energy production, need for more flexibility, energy savings, ...) and in response to this trend, we are thus witnessing in France the deployment of the Linky and Gazpar meters.

These devices are meeting the goal of better control over networks, nevertheless, they have delivered mixed results with respect to their appropriation by end-users for behavioral change and reducing energy consumption.

For the past few years, Enercoop has been taking a different stance from this “all technical" trend by offering trainings to reduce one’s electricity consumption. This training program called “Dr. Watt”, is a combination of on-line and off-line services for the users to regain control over their electricity consumption: understanding appliance by appliance the energy uses, having personalized advices, meeting other households and discussing these issues with experts available not only through a computer, but around the same table as well; and no device measuring real-time consumption but a simple wattmeter to connect to electrical appliances.

Enercoop relies a lot on the work of sociologists explaining that the cultural change expected for the energy transition will necessarily have to go through exchanges between individuals and affects created as a result of their meeting; and not only by the rational characteristic of quantified consumption. This bet seems to pay off, as participants of these trainings declare to have reduced their consumption after “going to see” Dr. Watt. The research works done within the European project REScoop Plus highlight this fact.

Other experimentations using the same community principle seem conclusive as well. Also in France, the experience of the “Défi Familles à Énergie Positive” ("Positive Energy Families Challenge" in English) has been renewed for the 9th consecutive year. Thousands of teams (gathering several households each) participated in competitions to reduce their energy consumption and saw it decrease on average by more than 10%.

The next challenge for this type of initiative is upscaling and dissemination. For this, the user experience must be thought out starting from the customer needs. Digital technology will certainly play its part in this challenge, however, the community and face-to-face aspects must be preserved. Enercoop, as a cooperative and electricity supplier, will have a role to play, using its regular interactions with its customers and members. Together with much more educational invoices and an on-line customer accounts – under development – we will have to maintain the possibility to link these billing tools with direct meetings so as to best serve customers understanding of their consumption and solutions to reduce it. All this has to be done with different possible levels of commitment for each and by preserving an element of fun so that changing one’s behavior is not experienced under pressure.

At Enercoop, we are convinced that regenerating social ties and using gamification techniques3 can really change the consumption culture in our societies, particularly regarding our energy consumption.

1- Transition from a conventional energy model (based on fossil and nuclear sources) to an exclusively renewable and sustainable energy model.

2- Energy efficiency refers to the concept of efficiency in the operation of a device or a system using energy. An energy efficient system is a system delivering a service with little energy consumption, compared to other systems delivering the same service. The notion of energy efficiency is therefore rather technical, while another notion, sobriety, would refer to individual behavior and collective organization. The two concepts put together constitute what we refer to as energy savings.

3- Gamification techniques refer to techniques usually used in games and applied to other contexts so as to enhance users engagement.

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