Determinants of the domestic energy use
Research group STEM, Universiteit Antwerpen
The energy use in households offers an enormous energy saving potential that is left untouched.
The Flemish families can theoretically save a lot of energy without sacrificing any comfort. Hence viWTA’s request to launch an investigation into the determinants of the residential energy use. Once we have an understanding of those determinants, it will become possible to use them as an anchor point for policy-making.
In the first part of the study, the direct interaction between beliefs/attitudes and energy-conscious choices or rational behaviour is questioned. Socio-psychological attitude models do not appear to be very good at predicting energy-saving behaviour. A wider range of factors has to be investigated in order to understand energy-saving behaviour. Amongst other things, one’s view on the environment, nature and the future, one’s knowledge and experiences, one’s situation and habitual behaviour and all kinds of socio-demographical characteristics will have to be taken into consideration.
The focus group method is very suitable to investigate a broader range of behavioural determinants. For the purpose of this study, five specific household types were selected (‘settled’, ‘55+’, ‘convinced’, ‘young house owners/builders’ and ‘tenants/social housing/low income’). Focus discussions were used to look for the underlying motives for the typical line of conduct and the potential behaviour of the participants.
The central result of the analysis of the discussions in the focus groups was that most people do not lose any sleep over an issue such as energy. Energy supply is experienced as a service, a utility that people are entitled to and expect always to be there. Comfort in the field of energy provision is an acquired right. A number of considerations with respect to energy-saving behaviour has to be taken into account. Financial considerations for instance, go in both directions. On the one hand, the not-so-wealthy are already motivated to save energy, so as not to run up the bill. On the other hand, people with capital might argue: ‘if we can afford it, why economize anyway?’. In families, which consciously try to limit their energy consumption, environmental reasoning may be a concern. Relational factors and exemplary behaviour too can be helpful to be willing to save energy. Furthermore, a technical interest can play a role in forming an energy-conscious pattern of behaviour.
From the discussions in the five focus groups, we have to conclude that the question of the encouraging measures the Government should take cannot be unambiguously answered for the Flemish families as a whole. The five focus groups might eventually turn out to be five different target groups, each having to be encouraged in a specific way. Setting aside the ‘convinced’ and the ‘young owners/builders’, all the other households can better be addressed with other arguments than the mere ‘energy and environment story’.
People refuse to live with less comfort. As far as their comfort is concerned, they do not accept that the level would drop. If the authorities want peoples energy behaviour to change, they should not neglect the comfort aspect. Comfort or well-being inside the home must remain ensured, however what that means may differ from one group to another. If comfort becomes the contact point in policy development, the authorities will need a better insight in how the different target groups construe that notion.
During the round table, experts have been formulating several original en well-founded policy lines, to effectively bring about the wanted shifts in the domestic use of energy. The panel members question the rational view on mankind that is articulated in many of the models that try to explain the use of energy. In the past, policymakers have often taken such a rational view for granted. By focusing on the differences between target groups, each of them having specific lifestyles and thoughts, the reflection on this view on mankind can be greatly stimulated. The round table formulated points of interest capable of helping to explain the logic behind the ways people think and act, including interest for processes of identity development, practical considerations, pivot points in life, exemplary behaviour of others, the importance of the consumer culture, the difficulty of taking one’s responsibility, technological interest and the relationship expert versus lay people.
The round table’s top three suggestions for policymaking have to be situated in the field of cognitive-motivational strategies. By calling in different genres of television programs, different target groups can be reached, each in its own appropriate way. Individualized advice with regard to the use of energy will start with positioning the individual or household in relation to a relevant group. In its efforts to make people more energy-minded, the government must recognize the importance of the great diversity of social networks that can be addressed. Once those forms of communication between families and policy bodies will have become an accepted practice, they might prove to be the type of interaction that allow to gather sufficient information to build a more differentiated or target group oriented approach into structural strategies too.