Columnists: Sea Rotmann, Operating Agent HTR Task (DSM TCP by IEA)

Published on: 13 Mar 2013

On the difficulty of designing good energy efficiency policy - Part 2

In my last colum n, I outed myself as not fulfilling the ideal of being a ‘dark green’ - even though I would get segmented as such by any social marketer worth their mettle. I did this in order to illustrate one of the main difficulties in designing good energy efficiency policy - the incredible idiosyncracies and complexities of individual human behaviour.

One (technocratic) myth I need to dispel upfront: every policy or programme implemented (by government) is geared towards achieving a behavioural outcome. Even if it is an entirely regulatory or technology-focussed approach, the ultimate outcome will be energy, emissions or monetary savings based on a change in behaviour somewhere along the line. This will usually be the energy end user but sometimes it is an intermediary eg an energy, building or IT manager who choses to purchase and implement more efficient technology. It has always baffled me why behaviour (change) was barely ever mentioned when discussing energy efficiency, or why it is suddenly seen as some new and exciting ‘add-on’. Technology is not the reason why energy gets used, peoples’ needs for the services technology provides are the reason. Hence, technology in itself is not the solution to the problem, changing peoples’ energy practices is the solution and technology provides (often but not always) the means.

In this column, I will concentrate on some other, wider issues hindering good policymaking.

Good policymaking has to include three main aspects:

  1. good design based on a solid understanding of the problem, the audience and their current behaviour - this includes a clear goal of the behavioural outcome that is desired after achieving change;
  2. strong implementation including the flexiblity to iterate your approach based on;
  3. rigid, ongoing monitoring and evaluation - not just of outputs but of the behavioural outcomes that are the overarching goal of the policy or programme.

I’d argue that a lot of policymakers are constrained (politicially, time-wise or financially) to achieve best practice in design, implementation and evaluation of their policies and programmes. If, say, the Minister decides to run a national energy efficiency campaign during an election year, government officials may be forced to design the underpinning policy or programme ‘on the fly’. Very little time, money and heed can be given to undertaking research informing better design and understanding of the target audience and their behaviour; and even less to ongoing monitoring and evaluation of actual behavioural outcomes that last. Instead, outputs that will provide a snappy political soundbite (like the total number of houses that can be insulated) will be measured instead. Who cares if individual houses and homeowners may need more targeted and tailored approaches to achieving better energy efficiency and actual energy savings? It is often regarded as too expensive to mix segmentation, tailoring or bottom-up individual advice in with national, top-down driven projects. That money seems better spent on a generic (social) marketing campaign with flashy TV ads, right?

Then there are the well-known economic pitfalls any policymaker encounters: the rebound (actual resource savings are minimal or even negative cause money saved is spent on more energy-using activities), free-rider (people who would undertake an energy efficiency action anyway use government incentives, thus crowding out people in more need) and spillover (positive or negative externalities from policies and programmes that can not be expected or easily assessed) effects. Now there is a new kid on the block, called the ‘prebound effect’: many homes, especially energy inefficient ones, are consuming much less energy than expected, thus reducing the estimated potential for savings in energy.

I empathise with the difficult lot of a policymaker (having worked as one for 6 years) - if it’s not individuals’ idiosyncracy; or time, money or political pressures making it hard to do good policy; it is unforeseen, difficult-to-measure or even perverse outcomes and macro-economic effects they have to content with. This, coupled with misconceptions and misrepresentations in the media and the public eye about the image of the lazy or untrustworthy ‘mandarins’ in the public service, does not help policymakers do better. In addition, when the chips are down and something becomes a generally-accepted problem, the onus (and blame) is often put on policymakers for not having regulated or mandated everyone to do the right thing in the first place!

So, what can be done to ease a policymaker’s lot and enable them to design, implement and evaluate better energy efficiency policies, pilots and programmes? I have some ideas based on good research theory and best practice, which I will present in the next column. Please contact drsea@orcon.net.nz if you have any comments on this column, or would like to share your own insights into the difficulties of making good policy.


Other columns by Sea Rotmann