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

Published on: 18 Sep 2012

On the difficulty of designing good energy efficiency policy

We have all heard of, and despaired over, the so-called ‘market failure’ of energy efficiency. When something makes so much sense on every level - economically, socially and environmentally, it should surely be a no-brainer to implement. Unfortunately, two major barriers stand in our policymakers’ way:

  • The unbelievable complexity and idiosyncracy of human behaviour and the external and internal factors (the ‘contexts’) that hinder and drive it;
  • The biased and rather naive assumptions that policy design is often based on: economic rationality, technological fixes, business as usual forecasts, consumption models based on flawed assumptions, bad demand data, etc.
  • I’d like to tell you my own personal story to illustrate the first point a little further: From a policymaker’s, or social marketer’s perspective, I would fall under the so-called ‘Dark Green’ segment of consumers: I am an energy efficiency professional and possess all the information and knowledge one would need in order to live sustainably; I have the financial capital to pay (more) for energy efficient technologies and (some) home improvements; I am driven by very strong pro-environmental attitudes and values; and was brought up by a family for whom resource waste was a complete no-go, in a country that was a leader in sustainable energy (Austria).

    When I moved to New Zealand, my professional life concentrated on sustainability implementation and energy efficiency research policy. The signs were promising for me to become a poster child for social marketing segmentation and fully embrace a completely energy efficient lifestyle. So, how close do I come to the behavioural models (eg that values and attitudes ‘drive’ behaviours) and this ‘dark green’ segmentation profile?

    The reality is somewhat different and a whole lot more complex: I live in a non-insulated, 90-year old beach house (what Kiwis lovingly call a ‘bach’) with single-glazed windows; my 42-inch plasma TV basically doubles as a heating device (although I did spend extra to get the most energy efficient model I liked); my fridge/freezer is also 4 star Energy Star (but more than twice the size of the one I grew up with); I do have a highly efficient flued gas heater in my living room but wear gloves, warm socks and sometimes even beanies and blankets in the other rooms of my house; my big fish tank consumes 15% of my residential electricity use by 24/7 filtration, pumps and lights; and I prefer a hot (outdoor) bath three times a week over daily, short showers.

    Only when I recently came home from Denmark, sick with the flu, and fell into my (very expensive, cradle-to-cradle designed) cold, damp bed after a 40 hour flight, did I realise just how much I have changed my own expectations on warm, dry housing since having moved into my Kiwi dream ‘house’.

    My house isn't even the worst of its kind, in fact, it is barely worse than an average home in NZ - student flats in Dunedin have been measured to be colder than the inside of a fridge! The unfortunate truth is that my house should probably get flattened, as retrofitting it to a high standard would almost be impossible and prohibitively expensive. I was hoping to build a completely sustainable, passive earthhouse at the back of my section for years, but the missing capital has so far denied me this dream.

    So why do I chose to live like this against all better knowledge and values? The main explanation I have is that the prevailing cultural and social norm around Kiwi housing and how to deal with the cold (‘put a jumper on’), has an incredibly powerful effect on my behaviour. As do constraints relating to missing upfront capital and the fact that I have neither ceiling nor floor space to insulate.

    Lack of strong building code regulation means that builders and tradespeople have limited knowledge on how to best retrofit for energy efficiency and good products are often expensive or not available. These, and the fact that my house really does not warrant large-scale investment, are other contexts acting against my better knowledge and strong environmental values.

    I can also rationalise my behaviours regarding my TV, fishtank, bath and fridge: I often have people over to watch movies, so I got a TV that fulfilled that entertainment service when the old one broke; I only shop every two weeks and don’t throw away food, hence having a lot of leftovers to freeze and store; I have a PhD in marine biology and the fishtank is a nod to my ‘roots’ and makes me happy; and I grew up having baths instead of showers and still love the relaxation and de-stressing effect that only a hot bath can bring (it’s my ‘treat’). I do, however, still live with other solid curtailment and conservation behaviours that have been instilled in me by my mother and grandparents, thus having a slightly lower than EU average electricity and gas consumption. It should, of course, be much lower were I really a ‘dark green’.

    The moral of the story is that even with the ‘right’ information, awareness, values, attitudes, upbringing and (relative) financial ability, my energy consuming behaviours are still not easily predictable by current models of understanding.

    If you’d like to share your own energy story please contact me at drsea@orcon.net.nz .


    Other columns by Sea Rotmann