The New Trend – Behavior-Based Energy Programs

Last week we talked about Building Energy Management Solutions (BEMS). Building on that concept, this week we’re talking about taking it a step further and implementing behavior-based energy programs, a complement to your energy management initiatives.

What exactly is a behavior-based energy program?

It’s a program focused on energy savings that occur through changes in individual or organizational behavior, according to the Bonneville Power Administration. Programs provide end users with information on their energy usage, along with comparisons of usage by others, and offer goals and rewards to encourage efficient use.

Behavior-based energy programs are expanding across the United States, offering a source of energy savings extending beyond current utility programs. The knowledge associated with behavior change has been used in other industries and it’s a promising means to encourage energy efficiency. But there’s still much more to learn about what’s most effective to motivate end users to make changes.

There’s a need for a systems approach rather than a single approach when it comes to building energy management, according to The Institute for Building Efficiency. The whole building should be examined, and various other programs should be implemented to achieve higher energy and expenditure savings. Changing behavior – encouraging customers to make simple changes – is just one aspect of an energy management program.

Commissioner Dian Grueneich of the California Public Utilities Commission references the adoption of seat belts and recycling over a few generations as evidence that energy transformations as simple as turning off lights or raising temperatures a few degrees are possible. One substantial benefit: behavior-based programs do not require the same funding as other energy management programs.

In its January 2012 report, Greening Work Styles: An Analysis of Energy Behavior Programs in the Workplace, ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) explains that an effective, long-lasting, behavior-based energy efficiency program requires the support of upper management; should be backed by a team; uses communication tools to reach participants; and engages building occupants.

In early July the Bonneville Power Administration partnered with three Northwest public utilities to test behavior-based energy efficiency programs. The first program in Snohomish County will encourage Starbucks employees across different stores to save energy. The stores will compete to save energy by using information from a web-based portal that provides energy use data compiled by the utility.

In the second pilot program, Clark Public Utilities plans to provide energy feedback to its customers through Facebook to change the way people use energy. In the third program, Cowlitz Public Utility will use digital media, text messaging, email and energy reports to encourage change. Clark Public Utilities and Cowlitz Public Utility are working with software company Opower to create their programs.

Cargill, a provider of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products/services, claims behavior-based energy management is saving the company $42,000 a week or $2 million a year in utility costs at just one of its plants.

Working with Management Alternatives Ltd., an energy reduction consulting company, Cargill has focused on energy reduction and achieved massive energy and monetary savings including.

  • $30,000 annually by modifying the air conditioning patterns
  • $750 a day by improving communication between boiler operators
  • 80,000 gallons of water a day by changing the way the plant conserves fresh water for its pigs

Behavior influences energy choices as much as economic factors. The savings from energy feedback programs range from 2% to 7%, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report about behavior-based energy efficiency programs. Programs can provide direct feedback in the form of real-time meters installed in buildings or indirect feedback where the information is given to the customer at a later time.

Some utility companies offer energy audits to customers to provide them with energy assessments and they also suggest energy-saving changes. The utility company can offer enhanced billing services to track usage over a period of time. Some companies are taking it a step further and installing real-time monitors in buildings to give owners up-to-the-minute energy usage information. Entire communities are participating in community-based energy programs where they work toward a savings goal.

Changes can involve low-cost investments, such as changing light bulbs, as well as high-cost investments, including purchasing new appliances. Habitual changes such as turning off lights when they’re not in use can be combined with one-time practices such as installing smart thermostats.

Behavior-based energy programs face some challenges primarily revolving around education, as the U.S. Department of Energy explains in its report. Policymakers, utility companies and other groups may lack awareness about the effectiveness of such programs. And energy managers may see energy efficiency as mainly about technology or economics as opposed to human behavior.

Antiquated billing systems may also pose some problems in implementing such programs. A lack of coordination or consistency can hinder the success of behavior-based programs. The department provides resources for helping federal agencies create energy awareness campaigns.

Can you envision behavior-based energy as a viable option to increase your operation’s energy efficiency?

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