jennifer cross

Reducing Energy Consumption Through Behavioral Change

by George Danellis

Perhaps the lowest cost way to reduce energy consumption in a building or workplace is through small behavioral changes.

For the most part this element of a greater strategy to save money on heating, cooling and electricity has been given short thrift in favor of high tech systems and their seeming greater reliability: take the human out of the equation and you get better results. Who among us doesn’t want our buildings automatically and efficiently managed by building controls? But buildings are occupied for the most part by human beings so there remain significant benefits to addressing behavior in order to more greatly reduce energy consumption.

It is certainly true that getting building occupants to act can be challenging. Likewise the size and condition of the building are key factors in successfully changing behavior for energy savings, as is the nature of the activities in the building. But even in hospitals with their strict mandate to ensure public health, operations are saving a lot of energy by reducing the brightness of lighting at night. In turn people speak in hushed tones – just what you want during nighttime hours.

Jennifer Cross, a sociology professor at the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins has been studying how mindfulness of our surroundings can be used to help organizations reduce energy consumption. Her work with the City of Fort Collins and the Poudre Valley School District has proven that it can work, and organizations are taking notice of the impressive results and her methods. At the Rocky Mountain High School campus electricity consumption was reduced by a whopping 50%. District-wide the Poudre Valley Schools reduced expenditures on energy by 37% per square foot in a 12-month period.

Dr. Cross asserts that the key to success is mindfulness.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines mindful as, “Taking thought or care, heedful: being conscious or aware.” In the context of building energy use being mindful means becoming more aware and curious of what is happening in our environment in this present moment. It is characterized by intentional action, versus the mindlessness of running on autopilot, in an unconscious routine for example.  Dr. Cross’s work seems to suggest that shifting people’s mindset even a little bit towards greater awareness of the indoor environment is enough to make a significant difference to both the bottom line and emissions related to energy use.

What needs to happen for this behavioral approach to work:

A commitment is required.

  • It must be communicated to occupants that this is not a “see if it works” approach but one that is expected to create results.
  • Openly perform an energy audit to baseline usage. This is both functionally and psychologically valuable.

A Culture shift needs to be developed.

  • Steps must be taken to integrate conservation values.
  • Behavioral expectations must be set through policy.
  • Encourage the examining and questioning of routines.

Leadership must be strong, even charismatic.

  • This need not be only at the top level. It is helpful to have leaders on a given floor of a building or in a department.
  • Encourage creativity – solutions are everywhere.
  • Empower the masses by devolving control and decision–making to the people who will be most responsible for the success or failure of the effort.

Communicate Progress

  • What are the organization’s values and how do they align with this effort?
  • Set some basic sustainability goals that include energy consumption.
  • Develop and share the chosen, concrete strategies for this effort.
  • Communicate progress. Use comparative feedback rather than simple data. In order to get people engaged they need to know where they started and how far they’ve come. When people know they are making an impact, they are inspired to do more.
  • Track and report daily energy use to provide more immediate feedback about performance.

While not as direct an action as upgrading lighting or HVAC systems, developing strategies to reduce energy consumption in buildings through behavior change can be a cost-effective and high ROI part of a greater effort to reduce resource consumption in buildings.