What difference would it have made if you didn’t vote in the last federal election? No difference at all. That may be why in countries where voting isn’t mandatory as little as half eligible voters turn up on polling day.

Sometimes it’s easier to let someone else do the work, especially if you know for sure that whatever you do will mean nothing. For a lot of the folk that’s the case when it comes to translating good intentions into a tangible, albeit notionally small, reduction in reliance on non-renewables.

The difficulty of making such a bold leap is compounded when you consider the large capital cost, rapid changes in technology (which brings the risk of missing out on something better) and subjective approaches to return on investment.

Most people who pay the household bills will tell themselves, yes, change is inevitable … but today the real choice isn’t so much to install solar as to weigh up a one-off discount from a competitive electricity retailer.

If take-up of renewables stands a chance of meeting emissions targets then the story has be sold into consumers’ minds. And that’s not as simple as flicking a switch.

“It’s about framing the choices we make, such that we make better ones,” says BehaviourWorks Australia director Liam Smith. The objective is to isolate anything that encourages “individual or social good”.

Consumers are manipulated by the way choices are framed, Smith says. An example is groceries offered at eye-level at supermarkets, which may be worse value than those at shin-level. A consumer who is presented with choices may not make the same decision as a consumer who researches all available options and makes her own decision.

In terms of the uptake of renewables being dictated by consumers’ decisions BehaviourWorks calls on research it undertook for Queensland energy retailer Ergon into purchases of new homes, where it found size, insulation and orientation were not given much consideration.

“When you do start to think about sustainability considerations it’s often tinkering at the edge; it’s ‘small stuff’,” he says. “What type of appliances or light fitting will I buy, when in fact house size and orientation will make a much bigger difference.” If you get those things wrong, there is little hope of correcting them with the right dishwasher or downlights.

In that instance, of course, the big decisions about energy consumption have already been made.

“People buying new homes largely have [size and orientation] predetermined for them,” says Smith, who previously has studied how consumer behaviour is influenced in tourism, health and tax, to name a few.

Developers’ and builders’ embedded practices are hard to change, he says. Also, in Australia it is considered the norm to have a big house, “and I don’t think enough people question the norm.” The size of your home is a metric of success and prosperity, he says, and social norms are very hard to change. Societal shifts can take multiple generations to change. Tinkering around with star ratings for appliances is a good start, although there isn’t a lot of research into exactly how much importance shoppers place on them.

GREEN LIGHT

Consumers have been observed since the dawn of commerce but the art turned into a science around the 1950s. Smith cites Opower’s adoption of the “descriptive norm in psychology” as successful in encouraging people to become more energy efficient. The idea is to tell consumers what other consumers are doing, or using. Instinct tells him “norming” (what your neighbours are doing) combined with feedback (how well you are doing in comparison) may be a powerful mechanism for behaviour change. Oxford University has already found feedback works, and can lead to reduction about 5%.

His example of the potential for a crossover of norming and feedback to push a change in behaviour around energy efficiency is a light in your house which turned green when you were using less energy than your neighbours and red when you weren’t.

Sure, it would involve a fair bit of engineering and a proper trial, but as a behaviour change tool it may be very effective.

When it comes to forcing adoption of renewables by simply increasing the price of conventional energy, the shock may be too much. “You need a really substantive tariff change to get the effects that you need for critical peak,” he says. Stronger effects are possible if tariff changes are combined with feedback mechanisms, such as encouraging text messages, he says.

Decisions about energy efficiency are tangible for people standing on the shopfloor of a whitegoods retailer but otherwise can seem pretty nebulous. If you can’t quantify it on the spot, what does it mean? Return on investment is far better understood by the industry that supplies the kit that cuts emissions and lowers energy bill than it is by the end consumer, which isn’t very helpful.

Major decisions around installations are very different from the behaviour impulse to turn off a dripping tap or switch off a light, he says. Reconfiguring the energy source for an established dwelling is “a much harder sell” for a consumer than getting in the habit of using a cold wash instead of a hot wash. “In fact what we don’t want is one or the other; we want both.”

The danger lurking within all consumers is “moral rebound”, he says, where a good thing can be rewarded by some not-so-good things. Think of the jogger who rewards himself with a piece of chocolate cake. For some consumers an economic reason to change habits can also crowd out the altruistic reasons. Is Bob next door going solar to save some bucks or be a good citizen? “The theory would say: if I put panels on my roof to save money I’m therefore more likely to do other things to save money.”

Of course, things that can save you money can often be bad for the environment, he says. There is less likelihood of that happening if feedback is provided to the consumer. “You’ve saved money, yes, but aren’t you a good environmental citizen for doing that.” That’s the optimal point to encourage consumers to go a step further along the green route by changing some of their energy use habits. How to do that is the question. “Behavioural [changes] are a harder sell,” says Smith, who started BehaviourWorks in 2011 with founding partners EPA Victoria, The Shannon Company and Monash University.

Everyday behavioural attitudes to replacing washers in dripping taps and only using the dishwasher when it’s full can also drive major decisions about installations, he says. “I believe it can happen both ways.” Those who only did it for the money can still become good environmental citizens.

This type of behavioural “spillover” can be seen in public transport, where a decision to take a train for the sake of cost or convenience is reinforced with stickers on seat backs telling commuters how much carbon has been saved from release into the atmosphere by their decision to not take the car.

If government wants to encourage a shift in attitudes towards clean energy it should “pat people on the back when they do the right thing even if they do it for the wrong reasons,” says Smith, who started out researching ways to change behaviour in tourism.

ARM-TWISTING

It’s fine to talk about the clear conscience that comes with going solar but households on low incomes will struggle to meet the existing bills let alone make major investments that will pay off only in the long run. Delayed gratification is very unpopular in the real world, and these people are also the ones who will bear the brunt of higher network costs as the ones who can afford to convert reach critical mass.

But that’s another hypothetical for the behavioural economists to ponder.

It goes both ways, of course. Energy companies must start planning for substations several years out, so decisions about investment today are measured on attitudes towards clean energy which are swirling in the ether today.

At home there are hundreds of ways to save energy, Smith says, but the likelihood of adopting them are all different. Cost is one decision variable, and if a solution is cheap it is more likely to be acted upon. One example is painting your roof white, a solution that’s become popular in Townsville, northern Queensland.

The home power savings program, where 220,000 low-income households in NSW were provided low-energy kit for their homes, led to no change in behaviour in saving energy. BehaviourWorks was brought in and suggested benefits to consumers should be monitored. It found that instead of telling someone how much better of they’d be from taking a shorter shower, for example, it would probably be more meaningful to tell them how much they are losing from taking a long one.

The dollar amount is the same, but “loss language works better,” he says.

 

Words by Jeremy Chunn and Lucy Rochlin