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Behavioural insights for energy transition : An exploration

“Eco-friendly electric vehicles (EV) do not pollute our environment, but the power plants that produce electricity for charging them do, don’t they?” asked a curious bunch of children during the last energy club session conducted by CAG.  Not many of us know or talk about this, do we? And for this reason, I believe that the question put forth by those youngsters is a sign of their awareness about renewables, pollution and energy. If properly channeled and supported, their awareness will undeniably guide them to take responsible actions now and well into the future. 

Is responsible action necessary?

Upholding the landmark Paris agreement - to limit global warming to 1.5°C - greenhouse gas emissions must decline 43% by 2030. To achieve this and to protect ourselves from the otherwise inevitable catastrophic consequences, a reassessment and revamp of our energy policies and practices are the requisites. Keeping in mind that ‘now’ is the crucial period for every possible step to be taken towards this, let us have a look at the importance of behavioural transformation for an effective energy transition. This is because, with behavioural barriers and the absence of willingness to change, no shifts towards sustainability can be achieved holistically.

Phasing out fossil fuels and the big-picture system change matters. Yet, the collective journey towards net zero living begins with individual attitude evolutions, a belief that change is needed and most importantly, the actual behavioural change.

Why behaviour matters?

Consumers are the key to the accelerated energy transition. The mere design and release of energy efficient products are not sufficient sources of change without first changing consumers’ mindsets about how they consume (or waste) energy resources and technologies. The incorporation of analysis and a better understanding of consumers’ (human) behaviour as a demand-side approach is therefore essential for efficient energy consumption and conservation.

If energy demand and population directly contribute to global carbon emissions (‘Kaya Identity’), then it is indisputable that human behaviour underlies the emissions.


The Kaya Identity 

Human behaviour, defined as actions or reactions in response to stimuli, is influenced by social norms and the environment, apart from personal preferences. The social environment governs interactions among individuals, and the social norms (which by itself is a part of the social environment and though informal) define the rules of individual behaviour in a society. On the other hand - human action impacts the environment in which we live and depend on; and collective human behaviour contributes to societal changes, including transformation in social norms.

These together, therefore constitute a set of cyclical changes, with each influencing the other.

Because of this undeniable influential linkage between behaviour/actions and sustainable development, studies and scholars highlight the change in consumer behaviour as a significant attribute to accomplishing the targets of the clean energy transition (United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7).

The government’s role:

A government and its allied agencies are dominant authorities of our society that direct the design of social rules, norms and thereby the actions of the citizens. Public policies and initiatives are so influential that people are obliged to follow them - at times out of trust or otherwise only because they are mandatory. Simply put, behavioural policy interventions have immense potential in meeting sustainability targets by changing the purchase and consumption practices of the public. 

Many motives guide consumer behaviour viz. price, incentives, mandates, benefits and environmental/collective welfare. As an agent of social pressure, the government can stimulate such motives and achieve a more conscious mindset towards judicious use of appliances and resources.  Examples of such measures are: 

  • Nudges and prompting - marketing campaigns, consumption pattern comparisons and awareness programmes 
  • Financial support - incentives, subsidies and schemes
  • Authority - rules/mandates, regulations and bans
  • Making associated materials accessible

The Indian government’s initiatives:

In India - the world’s third largest energy-consuming country, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) is the nodal agency established under the provisions of the Energy Conservation Act 2001 to facilitate energy conservation and efficiency. The BEE has been taking several measures to encourage energy efficient and sustainable public actions. The measures include:

  • Traditional strategies of information provisions, norms, schemes and energy efficiency financing/incentives like
    • Energy star comparison labels and endorsement labels via Standards and Labelling (S&L) and Super Efficient Energy (SEEP) Programmes to establish informed purchase habits.
    • Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for All (UJALA) scheme to promote accessible energy efficient lights for all.
    • Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT) scheme to reduce specific energy consumption in energy intensive industries. According to this, the designated consumers (industries) who consume energy lower than their targets receive energy saving certificates for their savings.
    • Electric vehicle incentives to encourage electric mobility.
    • Financial assistance for solar installations.
    • Rebates to promote the construction of buildings in compliance with the energy conservation building code (ECBC).
    • Students’ capacity building program to make children adopt a responsible energy consumption lifestyle.
  • Modern means of policy redesign and mandatory guidelines like 
    • Announcement of mandatory 240C default setting for all room air conditioners covered under BEE star rating.
    • Introduction of national level Time of the Day (ToD) electricity tariff system, i.e. collection of varied charges according to the time of the day. Based on this, consumers’ energy consumption during peak hours will be billed higher than the normal tariff. This is done to motivate consumers to achieve cost savings by doing high energy consuming activities during off-peak (normal/solar) hours. According to the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy, the electricity supplied during the solar/normal hours will be generated from renewable sources, mostly solar, and therefore the tariff shall be comparatively lower than the normal tariff. In most Indian states, for example Tamil Nadu, the peak hour differential tariff collection system is already in practice for industrial category consumers.

India’s potential for energy savings through behavioural interventions is estimated to be 3400 to 10200 GWh annually by 2030. However much work needs to be done beyond current programs and practices. Importantly, none of this is possible without people’s support.

The citizens’ role: 

The country’s citizens are the crucial stakeholders for India to achieve its ambitious energy transition commitment of reaching net zero by 2070. Without their (our) positive participation, the objectives of any macro efforts set forth by the government cannot be met. People must understand the present-day need to change energy consumption behaviours and that all public energy management actions are for the common good. But, despite the increasing environmental awareness and responsible contributions, careless acts and misuse of benefits still occur. For example -

  • overuse of LEDs even though they consume less energy, 
  • excess purchase, 
  • unmindful usage of appliances - like keeping them plugged in and their switches left on even when not in use which results in vampire/standby power loss, 
  • improper closing of taps and water wastage, which in a way means energy wastage, and
  • the recent instances of temporary installation as well as the false declaration of solar setup to get the completion certificates for multi-storeyed buildings.

The way forward, towards inclusive energy transition:

The ultimate effectiveness of energy efficient technological tools and green/clean energy policies lies in the hands and actions of the end users. But, the shift in habits is not their sole responsibility.

In a recent workshop that I participated in, ‘people trust government resources more’ said an official. If so, the public sector has a greater role in empowering citizens to act. People feel good when their actions benefit their environment and much of the public is keen and willing to do the right thing. The major setback is the lack or poor penetration of knowledge and awareness about today’s energy and resource crisis down to the grassroots level.

To address this, more reforms like sending real-time feedback to consumers about their energy usage patterns along with comparisons to peers’ energy usage, redesigning energy bills with displays of environmental facts etc and simplifying government formalities together with stringent enactment of needed restrictions must come into play. The help of in-depth research in all dimensions of behavioural science as a toolkit should be taken up further to lead the way.

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