Four things we learned at the BEHAVE23 Conference

08 December, 2023

Reading time: 6 minutes

CREDS researchers’ key insights and learnings from BEHAVE23 conference.

A CREDS team comprised of Marina Topouzi, Samuele Lo Piano, Uttara Narayan and Yekatherina Bobrova attended the BEHAVE23 conference — the 7th edition of the biannual EnR event focusing on the application of behavioural insights in energy efficiency and climate mitigation.

The key themes of the sessions varied widely, including topics such as policymaking and public engagement in energy solutions, retrofit, energy communities, demand flexibility and tools for energy conservation at both individual and community levels.

Here are some highlights and things we learned from the conference – by no means the only ones!

Policy evaluations and the need for in-depth analysis

At the heart of the conference discussions lay a crucial theme: the imperative for ex-post assessment of policy evaluations, a particularly daunting task, as evidenced in sessions like ‘How much energy do behavioural policy measures save?’

A general consensus emerged on the need for more policy alignment between regulation and tools, as well as improved communication of benefits to diverse groups. EU projects like NUDGEOpens in a new tab demonstrated the value and richness of insights gained from implementing and adopting regulatory incentives, highlighting the dominant role and challenges of behavioural interventions.

A strong message resonated across different sessions: the notion that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – be it in policy, tools, or innovative methods – is outdated and ineffective. This suggests that despite the complexity, tailored solutions for specific groups, population segments, and behavioural clusters are crucial for long-term impact. As expected from a socio-technical conference, there was widespread support for the idea that technology adoption, without accompanying behavioural change, is not a sufficient solution for achieving net-zero.

Energy demand and flexibility

Research from SwedenOpens in a new tab on ‘The Role of Gender, Age, and Income in Demand-Side Management Participation’, systematically reviewed key dimensions in this area. A notable tension arises from the fact that demand-side technologies are often designed with a focus on male users, even though female users remain primarily responsible for energy demand and appliance management at the domestic level. Another tension surfaces regarding age, where the elderly, while having more flexible schedules (often due to retirement), may not find technology to be accessible. On the other hand, younger users may possess technical knowledge but face other constraints due to busy schedules or shared living arrangements.

Another noteworthy tension explored during the conference is the dichotomy between user-free techno-fixes and the utilization of tools for behaviour nudging, aimed at eliciting specific responses from users.

In other sessions related to energy demand, conservation tools and retrofit, the discussion highlighted the need to bridge the gap between ‘general advice’ and ‘targeted coaching’, raising questions about how well-defined these approaches are in current services.

Proactively cultivating equity in energy communities and reframing the ‘Hard-to-Reach’ user conversation

Energy Communities (ECs) have long been considered significant to democratise energy, by making energy users as active agents in the energy system, with the EU even having directives around renewable energy and electricity markets. The session on ‘Energy communities: Public engagement in energy solutions and policy making’ demonstrated that equity is not automatically built into these communities, based on research from Austria.

This complicates the path to achieving a just transition, since the data suggest that ECs are not inherently socially-motivated. The research recommends the need for regulatory mechanisms from entities external to the community (such as the government), to ensure that social redistributive measures (such as social tariffs) are enforced to support the more vulnerable members of ECs. Another EU-wide research study focused on sites of energy citizenship, including households, energy storage sites, rural and urban spaces, and municipalities to understand practices of ‘lived citizenship’, as opposed to people’s perception of their energy citizenship.

Another popularly held assumption that the conference urged us to revisit was around energy users who are labelled as “hard-to-reach”. Presentations and panel discussions at BEHAVE2023 built on the work of the UsersTCP Hard-to-Reach Energy Users Task ForceOpens in a new tab. This research demonstrates that nearly two-thirds of energy users would qualify as hard-to-reach. Their characterisation goes beyond low-income households and constitutes a diverse range of residential and commercial energy users. However, the more vulnerable these energy users are, the more ‘invisible’ they are to stakeholders such as the government and policymakers, as their vulnerability is usually combined with stigmatisation or criminalisation.

Panel sessions allowed experts and attendees from various geographies to share insights on how the energy crisis has significantly impacted behavioural change. These discussions highlighted common problems and concerns, particularly regarding energy poverty and its impact on thermal comfort and health. Insights extended beyond households and communities to student groups in schools and higher education. In one of the final sessions, the term ‘fuel poor’ was challenged by one of the authors, questioning whether it is more stigmatising, thereby negatively annotating social groups already vulnerable in this energy transition. This led to a reflective agreement to seek a more positive and inclusive term for these users in future discussions.

These framings around energy communities, fuel poverty and hard-to-reach energy users are relevant to CREDS’ work on racial justice and energy demand, as they raise important questions around who has the privilege of being an energy citizen and thereby participating in the transition.

As we concluded the conference, all attendees were left with a wealth of learning and intriguing reflections to take back to our respective groups and inform our work.

Overall take away: We need a strong push to double the average annual rate of global energy efficiency improvements

One of the plenary opening presentations from IEA (International Energy Agency) summarised an extensive list of energy efficient activities for the Netherlands. The highlight from this presentation was the Energy Efficiency 2023 — the IEA’s primary annual analysis on global developments in energy efficiency markets and policy. What can we say — the IEA gets it right, again!

The report puts into a clear focus an international target to double the average annual rate of global energy efficiency improvements between now and 2030, in order to ensure that we can meet our climate obligations. The target is global, some countries are doing better than others, but all countries have a part to play.

So, how should we double? IEA suggests strong policy packages around information, regulations and incentives, as well as a tripling of global investment in efficiency. It is not easy, but we can do it!

Banner photo credit: Adobe Stock