• Rotmann, S., Karlin, B., and Cowan, K. (2024). Energy behaviour: Considerations for standardization. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON.

Executive Summary

The efficacy of behavioural energy programs (BEPs) can fluctuate and the context of a specific program can have significant implications for energy savings. To change energy use behaviour is complex, and often resource-intensive, and doing so relies on a solid understanding of the technological aspects of energy appliances and devices and of the human factors that influence energy use and consumption.

Accounting for the variety and complexity of energy behaviours means that programs include many target audiences, building sectors, behaviours, and approaches. Behaviour change interventions that follow whole-system approaches and applied-system thinking frequently yield positive outcomes. These interventions tend to differentiate between complicated systems, for example, ones that involve technology and follow rules, and complex systems, which consider the interplay between energy supply and demand, technology and human behaviour, and politics and the environment, and are constantly changing.

Although dividing all possible combinations of behavioural approaches neatly into categories is extremely difficult, some typologies have been developed:

  • Information-based programs that deliver information to customers (e.g., home energy reports [HERs], home energy labels);
  • Social interaction programs that rely on interpersonal interactions (e.g., competitions, games);
  • Education and training programs that include customer education (e.g., coaching and training); and
  • Monetary or financial incentives to encourage participation (e.g., rebates, rates).

A common challenge is the difficulty in identifying causal relationships between interventions and actual energy use, especially since behavioural programs often use a combination of these strategies. By using standardized and validated measures, researchers and program managers may be able to more easily trust results, compare data, and understand patterns across interventions. Existing energy standards do not directly address behaviour, which leaves room to develop standards and standards-based solutions (SBSs) to support BEPs.

The following recommendations are based on an in-depth literature review of existing standards and research and interviews with 17 behavioural energy research and program experts from industry, research, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and government sectors across Canada and the USA:

  • Develop definitions and parameter standards: A broad definition for energy behaviour is as follows: “Energy behaviour refers to all human actions that affect the way that fuels (electricity, gas, petroleum, coal, etc.) are used to achieve desired services, including the acquisition or disposal of energy-related technologies and materials, the ways in which they are used, and the mental processes that relate to these actions.” Clear operational definitions for all key terms to establish agreement within a given sector are also necessary to avoid using behavioural terminology loosely.
  • Develop minimum requirements standards to highlight potential tools, instruments, and methods that can be used throughout the program development process. Standardizing BEPs or strategies is not recommended, as these evolve as scientific knowledge grows and cultures change.
  • Develop standards for evaluation design and data collection and sharing to measure success and support learning across programs. Behavioural energy programs should include an evaluation of behavioural persistence (over at least 6 to 12 months) and non-energy impacts, including perceived and actual benefits and costs of changing behaviour. Creating standardized data-sharing protocols and platforms for regulators, evaluators, third-party vendors, and utilities would address the issue of energy data (e.g., from smart meters) not being collected, stored, or analyzed inconsistently.
  • Develop SBSs – best practices, guidelines, support, and training – to help build individual and organizational capacity and growth in the energy efficiency and demand response workforce. Augment the many available case studies with guidelines detailing how to identify suitable behavioural strategies or ideas for a given context.

To be able to consistently save energy of shifting outcomes via behaviour likely requires a combination of interventions based on different contexts and circumstances, and collaboration and co-design with multiple interested parties. It may yield many possible solutions and will likely not be resolved using technology alone. As such, the development of standards and SBSs for BEPs could potentially offer a significant step toward meeting Canada’s emissions targets and goals.