Shaping Behavior for Energy Efficiency in the Commercial Building Sector

By October 21, 2014Blog

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power_stripBehavioral approaches to energy efficiency have gained increasing acceptance over the past several years. Policymakers and regulators now incorporate behavioral techniques into their toolkits and private enterprises such as Opower and Tendril have achieved success in deploying for-profit behavior change programs. Thus far, these behavior change initiatives, as well as most research on behavior change strategies, have focused on influencing the behavior of people in their homes. There are legitimate reasons for this emphasis, but now with substantial experience in deploying behavioral programs in domestic settings, there is new attention toward using behavior change techniques to influence energy consumption in commercial buildings.

This new interest is well founded. Commercial buildings account for about a fifth of all energy use in the U.S. as well as a large portion of the waking hours during which people make decisions about how to use energy. Not only is the magnitude of energy use large, but also recent estimates by E Source place energy waste in U.S. businesses at a $60 billion annual cost.

In light of this opportunity for energy savings, the commercial buildings sector has long been a target of energy efficiency rebate programs, but these programs have largely ignored occupant behavior, in part because there are unique challenges to addressing behavior in commercial settings. For example, commercial buildings are far more heterogeneous than homes, so it is difficult to concretely identify which behaviors will be most impactful in a given building without seeing the equipment in situ. After all, how much do the energy loads in your local corner store resemble those of the coffee shop across the street? These differences make it challenging to scale behavioral interventions.

Businesses may also contend that their operations require leaving equipment active during non-operating hours (e.g. computers for updates), preventing employees from making smart energy choices like turning off equipment as they head home. Finally, the well established split incentives that deter tenants from adopting energy-efficient equipment are an issue for behavioral approaches as well. Employee behavior in commercial buildings influences energy use, but employees receive none of the benefit of energy savings.

Despite these barriers, researchers in the social sciences are seeking to develop a deeper knowledge base on effective strategies for employing behavioral methods in commercial spaces. Elsevier publishing recently launched a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the intersection of energy technologies and social processes. According to Kathryn Janda of the Environmental Change Institute, who sits on the journal’s editorial board, one of the key goals of the journal is to publish research on behavior change strategies for industrial and commercial buildings (C&I). Likewise, Susan Mazur-Stommen, co-chair of the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference (BECC), a leading conference on behavior change strategies, recently noted that BECC is increasingly seeking papers exploring behavioral approaches for C&I spaces.

In addition to the research community, businesses have begun seek opportunities to influence behavior in commercial buildings. Opower, perhaps the best-known company administering behavioral interventions in the utility sector, recently launched a program targeting small and medium businesses. Opower is currently reaching about 1 million commercial customers and sees this sector as a large opportunity for cutting energy waste. Also telling, Opower recently announced a strategic partnership with FirstFuel, a data analytics company with a large base of commercial and industrial customers. Details on this partnership are scarce, but it suggests an increasing focus on deploying behavioral messaging to the commercial sector.

Such efforts are not confined to utility programs. Thomas Polzin, a recent graduate of the Ross School of Business, now works as the global sustainability manager for commercial facilities at Dow Chemical, a newly created position. In this capacity he is charged with overseeing both infrastructural improvements to facilities, such as equipment procurement, as well as strategies to improve employee behaviors related to energy and material use. He highlights both challenges and opportunities in this area. In Dow’s newest facilities, buildings are LEED certified and feature amenities like comprehensive lighting controls. By contrast, older buildings may only feature one light switch for an entire floor, which significantly inhibits employee agency. For such facilities, it is necessary to upgrade building systems before targeting employee behavior. He plans to address these issues in the coming years.

Similarly, during my summer 2013 I internship with Shorenstein Realty, I worked with Jaxon Love, Shorenstein’s Sustainability Manager, to develop a behavior change pilot program to encourage tenants to improve energy use behaviors, specifically those related to plug loads like computers and printers. For Shorenstein, implementing a behavior change program served two purposes: 1) save energy in tenant spaces directly; and 2) engage tenants in a dialogue on energy use with the hope that this dialogue leads to a sustained partnership to reduce energy loads through both behavior and purchases of efficiency equipment. Among program participants, the Shorenstein program has thus far achieved an aggregate 18 percent reduction in energy use across 20 buildings around the country.

Each of these efforts by organizations in the non-profit and private sectors suggests rising momentum toward reliance on behavior as a tool to reduce energy waste in commercial buildings. Barriers to adoption remain and it may be some time before we see behavior as a mainstream approach alongside traditional equipment upgrades. Nevertheless, in this nascent space, the degree of activity and variety of actors involved provides adequate fuel for optimism.

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