Consumers

As energy bills continue to rise and force some into fuel poverty, how best can business and governm

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

As energy bills continue to rise and force some into fuel poverty, how best can business and government engage the consumer to educate on the needs for energy efficiency? And how much responsibility lies with the consumer?

Governments, activists and scientists are united on one fact: consumer behaviour is key to creating energy efficiency. But studies have found that only about 20 per cent of people are willing to change their behaviour. How can the other 80 per cent be engaged?

When policymakers first launched energy efficiency campaigns around 30 years ago, they focused on educating consumers and encouraging them to cut back. Over the years, this has been refined, with standards for energy-efficient appliances and new buildings introduced. Yet, despite such moves, energy consumption continues to grow in both absolute and per capita terms.

A big problem is getting people who already lead busy lives to change their behaviour. In these straitened times, a large group of consumers is struggling financially and does not think about the future.

In such circumstances, obligatory higher prices are not an attractive way of getting people to change their habits. Moreover, studies show that hikes must be substantial before the average consumer starts to notice. The focus is now shifting to alternative methods, including peer pressure.

Psychological studies have shown that people are influenced by comparison. Thus, telling people that their energy consumption is higher than their neighbours' makes them more likely to take notice and make a change.

Psychological methods of this sort address the basic problem that it is difficult to get people to engage. With something as invisible as gas or electricity, most consumers do not make the direct connection between their personal energy usage and the distant spectre of climate change. Thus, huge catastrophes such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill can change public perceptions of energy providers without having a knock-on effect
on their energy habits.

It is clear that there are big challenges ahead.