What works when and where in transforming energy practices?

Reducing household energy consumption is a longstanding effort in Europe. Various measures like the provision of feedback have been found to be successful and render small savings in energy consumption. Yet we often don’t know what people actually did differently after starting to receive the feedback. So the problem becomes somewhat more complicated if we want to change energy practices – like heating, showering or mobility – more fundamentally and in the long term.

Changing practices is even more complicated if we want to find ways of working that can be used to change energy practices across different energy cultures. Practices are connected to infrastructures, systems of provision, governance structures and collective conventions and symbolic meanings, which are quite different even within Europe. For example, we pay for heating and decide about heating systems individually in some European countries and collectively in others. It is a genuine challenge to devise a scheme that works similarly throughout Europe.

ENERGISE WP3 (designing best-practice interventions) addresses this issue, drawing on several sources of knowledge and experience. One of these is the ENERGISE database of European sustainable energy initiatives, another are prior meta-analysis of how interventions work in different countries. We also draw on reflection on prior lessons learned together with experienced researchers and practitioners. Our ambition is to find a scheme for changing energy practices that renders CO2 savings and can be scaled up across Europe.

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(Consulting Hungarian practitioners, Picture source: GDI)

One of the interesting approaches we are exploring is experimentation with new practices in living lab-style. There are examples of this from several countries, where small groups of households temporarily disrupt their existing practices of heating, showering or mobility and try out new practices. This provides valuable knowledge on what problems people encounter when trying out new and more sustainable practices. The key problem we need to address is how such new practices are then diffused, potentially via product and service developers, and potentially via social networks.

We are also looking at how packages of energy measures are adapted to users’ needs and practices. Here, the starting point is often to first identify gaps and problems in the users’ environment which make energy conservation difficult, and to then design supportive measures like energy audits, advice and technical, financial and social support. For example, elderly people might not welcome even free-of-charge renovations since relocating is so difficult: social services might help by offering support for vulnerable people to manage the transition.

It is interesting to think how disruptive and supportive measures can be combined to engage householders in changing energy practices. We are exploring these – and other related issues – at the moment and welcome your feedback and ideas!

Article by Eva Heiskanen and Senja Laakso, University of Helsinki