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Barriers and challenges to urban energy saving

In the past few posts I’ve outlined a number of the barriers and challenges, and some forward facing questions, in relation to medium- and high-density energy conservation/efficiency. I thought it might be worth doing a quick (unscientific/non-comprehensive) summary.

Low (sense of) agency

Residents (whether they be owners or renters) can’t necessarily change their personal environment to either gather information on usage or achieve efficiencies. There are limits in their ability to influence decisions relating to common property, and high energy consumers (such as major appliances) are not something that can be changed regularly/easily. They can’t necessarily change/see the effects of change in shared environment/commons. It’s difficult to add renewables into the mix (especially for individual apartments). If structural barriers can’t be addressed, finding opportunities for individuals to monitor and then adjust their own actions, within their field of influence, is important.

Lack of access to information

Most residents have limited to no access to metering data to determine usage and impact of efficiency measures. When information is available, it typically comes well after ability to troubleshoot and action/respond/react. Equipment to monitor “within the walls” can be quite expensive (comparatively) and cumbersome to use. Assuming that structural barriers can’t be addressed, low(er) cost devices that empower individuals to monitor their consumption are important to overcome the structural barriers to getting the information needed.

Framing of energy usage

My previous notes, touching on Yolande Strengers’ excellent work, covers this better than I can do justice to here. The basic gist: current/dominant solutions are based on a (gendered) framing/perspective that doesn’t reflect actual energy usage behaviours, nor take into consideration social and other non-“resource management” approaches, leaving a good portion of the population disengaged. Alternative form factors and information display approaches—going beyond “graphs and charts”—are important in influencing behaviour. A human-centred design approach that embraces perspectives beyond the “resource”/commodity view of electricity is beneficial.

Personal economic benefit doesn’t stack up

Costs associated with buying testing equipment or upgrading major appliances don’t result in significant enough savings alone to justify the expense. Therefore, tapping into intrinsic and social motivations is critical. That is, leveraging people’s sense of “I want to do something to improve my sustainability”, and/or “being part of something bigger than me” is an important driver. Game dynamics could play a useful/important role in this regard. (As an aside, structural changes in relation to rewards for reduction actions by energy providers—so called negawatts—could provide a strong economic driver/incentive that bolsters the cost saving argument.)

Individual impact is not the story…

…but aggregate effect may be much more compelling—however, more data/research is needed to validate this. From what I’ve seen, most systems currently available have proprietary data stores that do not allow quantification across systems etc. and few have built in mechanisms that reinforce/tap into social motivations. Therefore, open data and socially-oriented mechanics are important. Relative improvement and measures—e.g. “I did better than last month”, “I did better than my neighbours”, rather than absolute “I saved X KWh”—is also likely a more effective focus. And emphasising the amplification effect—”how do my actions combine with others to have a bigger impact?”—is also helpful, whether that be at the building, community, or broader levels. It has a double-whammy effect, not only making my actions feel more meaningful, but also tapping into social norms and proof as a self-reinforcing loop.

Not exactly an easy set of challenges to respond to! But a very interesting, and I would suggest rewarding and beneficial set, nonetheless.

Feature image credit.

Also published on Medium.

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