Throughout the last 10-15 years, there has been many trials across Europe and in US attempting to make households save energy or time shift their energy consumption through providing direct feedback to individual homes about their energy consumption and cost. The feedback can be given in many ways such as via websites or smart phone apps and can include various levels of information (e.g. the hourly distribution of the household’s energy consumption and/or the price of the energy). However, previous feedback trials have often been a limited success in permanently engaging householders in changing their energy consumption. One of the reasons for this is that the feedback designs are typically having a rather individualistic approach and often emphasise only the economic or environmental benefits of changing energy consumption practices. To be relevant for more people it would be ideal to include more benefits.
More recent trials and studies indicate that adding a neighbourhood aspect to the demand response design increases the level of engagement and help people to stay involved over longer time periods. The important thing here is the acknowledgement of people being social beings, and that we as citizens and residents can have also other reasons for changing our energy consumption than just the economic and environmental. Projects, like the London-based Smart Communities, show that householders are more willing to take part in energy saving initiatives if they feel it is part of a community move in the local neighbourhood. In such projects, people are not only changing their practices in order to save energy and money, but also because they believe it helps their neighbourhood.
In the RESPOND project, we plan to utilise the neighbourhood approach by focusing on local energy management and how to optimize the flows of local energy production and consumption. For instance, this will be done by providing feedback to householders about the local neighbourhood electricity production from solar cells (PVs) in order to motivate them to time shift their power consumption from morning or evening peak hours to midday hours when the sun is shining and the PV power production peaks. Optimising the use of their “own” local energy production makes it more appealing for the households to take part in the demand response programme.
Another way of employing the neighbourhood approach is through normative social influence. Studies show that our ideas of what other people do have a considerable influence on our personal motivation to adopt new habits. Thus, if we believe (or can see) that our neighbours are sorting their waste, the probability that we will adopt the same practice ourselves is higher. People are “consensus seeking” and like to do the same as others. This can be utilised in neighbourhood approaches through giving the households information about their neighbours’ energy consumption – for instance by comparing the energy consumption of the individual household to that of its neighbours. This can be done strategically by comparing the individual household to the best performing households – e.g. the average energy saving rates of the 20% of the households that are saving the most. This can motivate households that are performing worse than the “top performers” to improve their own energy savings or move in time their energy use.
A positive “side-effect” of neighbourhood approaches is that they seem to attract a higher share of women to become active participants. This is important, as most smart energy designs are appealing primarily to men and therefore often have a gendered bias.
All in all, neighbourhood approaches can help make demand response programmes more effective and attractive to households by addressing aspects of human life that are not only centred on economic motives (saving money) or abstract ideas about “doing the good” for the environment. Neighbourhood approaches tap into other domains that are meaningful to people such as helping their local neighbourhood or measuring one’s own actions to the actions of other people.