Public understanding of sustainable energy consumption in the home

Start date:
February 2007
September 2007

Brook Lyndhurst was commissioned by Defra to conduct qualitative research into public understanding of sustainable energy consumption in the home. Through the course of 12 focus groups, in-home energy audits and follow-up, in-depth interviews, we were able to identify how energy attitudes changed across different segments of the UK population, e.g. ‘dark green’ consumers, wastage focused etc. This innovative segmentation analysis enabled us to make policy recommendations to Defra across five key behaviour goals, notably installing domestic micro-generation, insulation products and energy efficient appliances.

The key objectives of the research were:

  • To unpack current consumer attitudes towards energy and understanding of the concept of sustainable energy consumption;
  • To understand consumer aspirations with specific relationship to both appliances and other energy use/consumption behaviours in the home (including current assumptions of what is a ‘good’ energy appliance);
  • To understand consumers’ acceptance of the need, and ability, to consume energy in sustainable ways (what could they do; what would they be willing to do; what are the motivators/barriers?);
  • To understand consumer expectations of the role for government, retailers and producers in facilitating and encouraging sustainable energy use and introducing energy efficient appliances;
  • To identify possible differences in understanding, assumptions, aspirations and expectations according to varying demographics;
  • To identify trusted advisors to help householders to make their homes more energy efficient and the type of information that might influence their purchasing decisions (i.e. are they prepared to incorporate environmental and social factors?); and
  • To explore the potential impact that new information (and different ways of presenting new information) on environmental and social effects would have on consumers.

Whilst these objectives addressed domestic energy issues as a whole, particular emphasis was placed upon issues relating to Defra's five possible behaviour goals (as defined through their previous scoping work contributing to the development of a Pro-Environmental Behaviour Framework ):

  • Buying/installing energy efficient products/appliances;
  • Better energy management and usage in the home;
  • Installing insulation products;
  • Installing domestic micro-generation; and
  • Switching to a green energy tariff.

The project was divided into four main qualitative research phases:

  • A brief, concise literature review of the existing evidence base on consumer attitudes to energy - findings from this review fed into the design of the focus groups and depth interview topic guides;
  • 12 focus groups of 8-10 people (114 people in total) - participants were recruited from suburban areas (which typically have higher carbon emissions and therefore may provide 'quicker wins' for Defra) across a mix of housing types, and in four distinct geographical locations according to Defra’s ‘environmental segmentation model;
  • Energy audits and in-home advice (24 people) - two people from each group participated in ‘action research’ and underwent an energy audit of their home with a specialist energy consultant; and
  • Depth interviews with audit participants (23 people) - each participant was asked to consider the advice over the course of one week and discuss the barriers and motivations behind implementing what they had learnt through an in-depth interview.

The segmentation model (which has since been updated in the Framework for Pro-Envionmental Behaviours) divided the population into seven major groups according to their environmental values and pro-environmental behaviours, namely: Greens; Consumers with a Conscience; Wastage Focused; Currently Constrained; Basic Contributors; Long-Term Restricted; and Disinterested. This research focussed on the first six segments.

The research showed that, while participants were conscious of climate change issues, the well-known “attitude-behaviour” gap seemed particularly acute in the case of energy. We hypothesised that this is related to the deeply embedded nature of energy within modern lifestyles, posing a particular challenge for policy.

In general, the research participants were:

  • Confused and sceptical about environmental issues, in particular: 1) whether climate change is actually man-made or part of a naturally occurring cycle; 2) whether individuals in the UK can really have an impact on a global problem; and 3) whether the government is using the green debate as a ploy to raise taxes;
  • Unwilling to ‘take on’ climate change, partly due to a perceived lack of effort by the government as well as others in the public eye, while there were signs of a public backlash against climate change (even amongst the Greens).
  • Highly cost-conscious (this is the strongest behavioural driver for most people – many do not consider energy or environmental issues);
  • Distrustful of government, local authorities and big business in general and in particular of their motives in helping the public to change their behaviour to ‘save the planet’;
  • Unconvinced that ‘being green is normal’ (particularly if ‘being green’ is owning your own wind turbine and signing up to a green energy tariff) - this was still perceived as a niche activity (except unsurprisingly by some of the ‘greens’); and
  • Sceptical about the use of taxation to change behaviour, preferring incentives rather than taxes (although if green taxes are used the consensus was that they should be safeguarded solely for green issues) - grant schemes appear to be the most positive incentives for encouraging measures to reduce energy consumption (by all segments).

In addition, participants did not recognise the links between their lifestyle, energy consumption and the environment, exemplified by the following issues:

  • They were mostly unaware of how much energy they used on a daily basis (and how much energy different appliances consume) and most were unaware how much they spend on energy on a monthly basis (Wastage Focused and Long-Term Restricted were a notable exceptions) - they mostly took unlimited access to energy for granted;
  • Few participants thought about energy issues that often (with the possible exception of some of the Greens) and consequently, did not know from which sources UK energy is derived;
  • They tended to assume all modern appliances were ‘good’ (consuming low amounts of energy), e.g. plasma screen televisions;
  • Some aspired to own high-energy consuming appliances in addition to simply owning more appliances (many which other groups take for granted such as washing machines or dishwashers);
  • Energy consumption rarely featured on a purchase decision list;
  • Very few people were prepared to pay more for anything ‘green’; and
  • Cost was by far the biggest driver for reducing energy consumption (although participants tended to only consider initial outlay costs rather than longer term ‘whole-life’ costs, e.g. ‘how much is this washing machine today?’ rather than ‘how much will this washing machine cost to run for the next few years?’).

The research findings advocate (as indeed do others) that a mixture of regulation and individual behaviour change is best placed (and indeed necessary) to reduce domestic energy consumption. All five behaviour goals were considered in terms of their ability to reduce domestic energy consumption (and therefore carbon emissions) against the potential cost of doing so. This ‘bangs per buck’ criterion was then considered against the public responses identified throughout the research. To this end, the findings suggest that Defra would be best placed to prioritise the goals in the following order:

  • Priority 1 (joint) – better energy management and usage in the home;
  • Priority 1 (joint) – install insulation products;
  • Priority 3 – buy/install energy efficient products/appliances;
  • Priority 4 – install domestic micro-generation; and
  • Priority 5 (if at all) – switch to a green energy tariff.

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