Applying behavioural insights to improve home energy savings

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) was halfway through its Home Power Savings Program – reducing energy use for 220,000 low- income households – when it saw it wasn’t tracking as fast as it hoped (to achieve a reduction target of up to 20%). It was working, sure, but it wanted to achieve greater impact. OEH therefore had a choice - keep going with no change, or embark on a process of "adaptive management".

What is adaptive management?

Adaptive management is a mindset that embraces both uncertainty and learning by accepting that:

  1. things don’t always work out as planned, and
  2. adjustments made along the way can improve a program’s performance.

Sounds straightforward, but it can be painstakingly slow. The barriers to making changes are significant and it’s this area where much of BWA’s work was focused.

The challenge:
Improve the efficacy of the Home Power Savings Program
NSW Office of Environment and Heritage

What did we do?

We worked collaboratively with OEH to adaptively manage the Home Power Savings Program.

After reviewing program materials and accompanying energy assessors on visits, we modified the program by:

  • training more than 90 energy assessors in three key behaviour change principles and incorporating these techniques into household visits
  • changing the format of the visits, encouraging households to discuss, agree and write down three energy-saving behaviours that they would commit to
  • making communications tools simpler, with more personalised information and tips trialling three different follow-up devices used by energy assessors to reinforce commitments made by householders (SMS, phone call and a follow-up visit).

Key findings

Changes based on this research were estimated to have contributed almost 40% to the overall energy savings for participating low-income households, which was twice as much as the figure reported in the interim evaluation (based on previous estimates of behaviour change within the program).

We also identified four vital factors that contribute to the success of adaptive management:

  1. a confident organisation that is nimble, decisive and supportive of a safe to fail culture
  2. recruiting external help to fill in the gaps in the Home Power Savings Program teams’ expertise and an internal champion to keep that team onside
  3. getting buy-in from the team by recognising their strengths and what’s worked so far
  4. Asking, not ordering.

What else?

The program also received a 2014 Premier’s Award in the category of“Strengthening the Environment and Communities”.

We also co-authored a paper with OEH on the adaptive management process: Curtis, J., Graham, A., Ghafoori, E., Pyke, S.,Kaufman, S., & Boulet, M. (2017). Facilitating adaptive management in a government program: A household energy efficiency case study. Journal of Environmental Management, 187, 89-95.

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