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Understanding household energy consumption

 

Household energy consumption is not “top of mind” among consumers and citizens in Western Switzerland. Other issues are more important – such as health, wellbeing, comfort, connectivity, convenience and security, all of which are linked to everyday routines and habits that use energy services.

Background (completed research project)

Much of everyday life consists of routinised and habitual activities that use energy, such as cleaning homes, washing clothes and preparing meals, or entertainment and recreational activities. Underlying these practices are socially constructed norms that often remain implicit and are tacitly accepted. By understanding the social norms linked to these practices, opportunities for reducing or improving electricity consumption could be identified. For practices to change, different elements must be accounted for together, including social norms, rules/regulations and rules prescriptions; infrastructures, appliances, products and material arrangements; as well as competencies, beliefs and emotions. Social and participative learning offers an opportunity for shifting practices in order to reduce and/or improve energy usage.

Aim (completed research project)

How can a deeper understanding of electricity consumption in the home – involving everyday social practices and linked to implicit social norms – lead to more efficient and/or reduced patterns of consumption? The three related sub-questions are:

  • What are the existing and inter-related practices that relate to electricity consumption in the home and how can these be better understood?
  • What are the implicit and tacitly accepted social norms related to these practices? How can emotions help to uncover social norms?
  • How do people shift from their habitual everyday activities to new practices, i.e. towards efficiency and/or sufficiency?

Results

  • The energy turnaround is not very meaningful to households in Western Switzerland, and electricity consumption is not “top of mind”.
  • In connection with energy services (such as lighting, storage of food, cleaning, communicating, etc.), the following issues are important and can be considered as starting points and co-benefits towards energy efficiency/sufficiency: health, wellbeing, comfort, connectivity, convenience and security.
  • Social norms revolving around tidiness and cleanliness are very strong in Western Switzerland, particularly in connection with washing and cleaning practices which remain gendered. Norms relating to connectivity and information communication technologies (ICT) are more volatile. Norms can be contested, leading to changes in consumption practices.

Relevance

Relevance for research

Further research is needed on:

  • Understanding how sufficiency or absolute energy reductions could be advanced across different public and private economic sectors in Switzerland.
  • The role of participative methods and initiatives that challenge social norms and aim at shifting practices.
  • The links between housing design and energy consumption, towards “locking in” less energy-intensive practices.
  • The role of the sharing economy and/or product-service systems (PSS) in reducing appliances acquisition and maximising usage.

Relevance for practice

Policy and practice implications are:

  • The distinction between efficiency and absolute energy reduction or sufficiency is not understood in households, nor put forward in policy measures.
  • Participative methods that engage household members in forms of social learning are effective, such as games, challenges or demonstrations.
  • There is a need to move beyond the idea that informing consumers and moralising about energy consumption will lead to better behaviour; social context and everyday practices must be taken into account.
  • The building sector has a critical role to play in designing homes that involve less and better energy usage.

Original title

Understanding household energy consumption: social practices, norms and values, and learning how to change

Project leader

  • Prof. Suren Erkman, Faculté des géosciences et de l'environnement, Université de Lausanne